George Floyd & Ma’Khia Bryant in the Arms of Jesus

John 10:11-18

This Fourth Sunday of Easter is also known as ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’. Throughout the readings and prayers for this occasion, we encounter, time and again, Jesus defined as our shepherd and ourselves as the sheep of his flock.

I was going to preach today exclusively on Jesus as the good shepherd, but in light of recent events affecting our Black brothers and sisters, I feel compelled to speak to those events.

For more than two weeks, all the world waited with bated breath as we watched the trial of one of the policemen accused of murdering George Floyd. Most of us were astounded at the preponderance of prosecution evidence and disgusted at the defense Derek Chauvin’s attorneys presented. Most people were sure that there would be a conviction of Derek Chauvin, his executioner, but because of past experience with white cop/black victim incidents, many of us were afraid the ‘thin blue line’ of defense would prevail. However, this time the legal system returned a valid conviction on, not only one, but all three charges.

But before we could celebrate that justice was delivered in the George Floyd trial, just less than an hour before the verdict came in, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was shot and killed by a white Columbus policeman. This is the seventh death of Blacks by law enforcement in the last four months!

Then Friday, a deputy killed Andrew Brown Jr., in North Carolina while attempting an arrest.

Please say with me their names:

Miles Jackson . . .

Andre Hill . . .

Casey Goodson, Jr. . .

Adam Toledo . . .

Duante Wright . . .

Ma’Khia Bryant . . .

Andrew Brown, Jr.

This slaughter has got to stop!!

No matter whether George Floyd was a found sheep, or a lost sheep, he was still a child of God, and deserved to be treated as such. But Derek Chauvin saw him as a threat to himself, and maybe others, and mercilessly took his life by kneeling on his neck for over nine minutes. He forgot God’s commandment:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (Luke 6:31)

What he did was not subdue George so that he could not harm the police, but maliciously kept his knee on George’s neck until there was no breath or movement – and then kept it there for another three minutes. He was not lawfully carrying out his duties as a police officer sworn to uphold the law and protect the people of Minneapolis. If you see the video, there was only a blank detached stare in Chauvin’s eyes during that whole nine-plus minutes; with no sense that he realized that George Floyd was another human being.

And for once, in a nation of inequality, the brave jury of twelve people, as well as a number of police, determined that Derek Chauvin had committed a crime and should be punished for it. We all know that this one verdict is not going to correct the horrendous murders of black men and women, but it may be a start. Statistically, 98.3% of all police-involved shootings do not result in indictments, trials, or changes in policy and procedures.[1] We all need to work to bring awareness and remedy to police violence and brutality in our society, whether it comes from police or other people.

After the verdict came in, I imagined in my mind, that George Floyd was cradled in the arms of Jesus, being held in the love and comfort by the Savior of us all, protected from any further harm or grief or pain.

Still, as we breathed a collective sigh of relief Tuesday, our community felt the sting of another police shooting, resulting in a sixteen-year old black teenager dead from four gunshots.

Whether Ma’Khia was a troubled foster child, or this started as a spat with two other girls about a messy house and unmade bed, it came when Ma’Khia wielded a steak knife and was summarily shot by a Columbus police officer. The incident and actions of the police officer are still being investigated, so this is not the time to make presumptions. But nevertheless, another one of our Black sisters is dead at the hand of law enforcement.

It is time to mourn Ma’Khia, along with the others whose lives have been snuffed out by extreme use of lethal force by police, when it is likely that they would not have used such force if the victim had not been a person of color.

And so, I again imagine in my mind, that Ma’Khia Bryant is being cradled in the arms of Jesus, being held in the love and comfort of the Savior of us all, protected from any further harm or grief or pain.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, said:

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish;the good shepherd000 no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:25–28).

That is what a good shepherd does. And that is what Jesus does for each of us – and we are his sheep.

He is, for all of us, the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for us. He searches for us when we’re lost, to save us and to show us the way to eternal life (Luke 19:10).

The Shepherd knows each sheep by name, they know his voice, and they follow him. He protects them. The hardest thing the shepherd has to protect us from is ourselves and our own foolishness.

We tend to be like sheep, consumed with worry and fear, mindlessly following after one another. By not following or listening to the Shepherd’s voice (John 10:27), we can be easily led astray by others to our own destruction.

George Floyd and Ma’Khia Bryant, although they no longer live in this human plane, are Jesus’ sheep, and now live eternally with Him. No one can remove them from the arms of Jesus.

But just like sheep, we generally do not ‘get’ it – that is why Jesus repeats this passage of scripture so often. He says:

    • He is the Good Shepherd,
    • He laid down his life for his sheep,
    • And he knows the name of all his sheep,
    • His sheep follow him.

And still we do not always ‘get’ it!

If we are going to look at Jesus as the ‘Good’ Shepherd, we must remember that we are the sheep. We all have been lost, but

Jesus comes and gathers us all back into the safety of the flock.

He shows us how to follow him, listen to him, and come back to the safety of his arms. And he also provides an example of how we can be shepherds to those around us. Jesus challenges us to not only follow him, but be the voice and person to lead others to Him. We each can be the sheep that follow him, but also a member of the flock that lead others to Him.

We are all called to be his sheep.

I would like for you to set aside some quiet time this week pondering

“Who is a good shepherd for you and for whom are you a good shepherd?”

I invite you to take these questions with you –

When we listen to Jesus, as sheep listen to the shepherd, how do we respond?

If we do not respond, are we really listening?

Do we hear him when he speaks to us?

Do we listen when we hear him?

How do we respond to the voice of Jesus?

Amen

 Delivered to Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Columbus, OH; 25 April 2021

 


[1]      Carlos Watson, “A Verdict for America”, CNN, Washington Post; 24 April 2021

Acknowledging ‘White Privilege’

privilege and racismThe words ‘white privilege’ have been bandied around by pundits, the media and in general conversation, and while many of us accept that it exists, we are not sure what it means. The best definition of ‘white privilege’ that I have found came from a class in women’s studies at the University of Massachusetts:

a set of advantages and/or immunities that white people benefit from on a daily basis beyond those common to all others. White privilege can exist without white people’s conscious knowledge of its presence and it helps to maintain the racial hierarchy in this country.

The biggest problem with white privilege is the invisibility it maintains to those who benefit from it most. The inability to recognize that many of the advantages whites hold are a direct result of the disadvantages of other people, contributes to the unwillingness of white people, even those who are not overtly racist, to recognize their part in maintaining and benefiting from white supremacy.

White privilege is about not having to worry about being followed in a department store while shopping. It’s about thinking that your clothes, manner of speech, and behavior in general, are racially neutral, when, in fact, they are white. It’s seeing your image on television daily and knowing that you’re being represented. It’s people assuming that you lead a constructive life free from crime and off welfare. It’s about not having to assume your daily interactions with people have racial overtones.

White privilege is having the freedom and luxury to fight racism one day and ignore it the next. White privilege exists on an individual, cultural, and institutional level”.[1]

To quote African -American author, James Baldwin, “Being white means never having to think about it.

Many of us at Saint John’s benefit every day from our ‘white privilege’. We don’t even acknowledge that we have it, and indeed, enjoy a life that people of color can only dream of, but do not often attain. Life’s path is smoothed for us; the entire world is set up to give us every advantage, allow us to come out on the top. Moreover, we don’t want to talk about the fact that we are privileged, or even think that our privilege directly affects the lives of millions of people of color. We do not have to worry about whether our children will return safely as they walk home from school, or if they are driving, will they be stopped for the most minor of offenses and jailed. I have an African-American friend who does not drive in Bexley because the police consider ‘driving while black’ a reason to stop him. We don’t have that worry. And even if we are stopped by the police, we don’t fear that we will be assaulted or shot. We don’t have to teach our sons how to avoid harassment when they are doing nothing wrong. People don’t cross to the other side when we walk down the street, or hold tight to their purses when we pass by.

Racism is about much more than our feelings toward one another, or about differences that we can fix with talk of tolerance or color blindness. The story of race is an ideology of difference that shapes our understanding of ourselves, the world we inhabit, and the communities in which we live. Racial thinking assigns value to human beings who are grouped within artificial categories. We do not need to embrace contrived notions of racial differences, in the name of inclusion, but to examine to the depth of our hearts how we really feel about people of color. Tolerance is not acceptable; we must search until we can truly look at any other person as equal to ourselves. By minimalizing another person, we are dehumanizing not only them but ourselves.

In light of the murders and shootings of people of all colors in the past few months and most recently, we, may be appalled or anguished, but may not see these events are directly related to the long-standing racism in our nation stemming from slavery. Progress for people of color has been slow, and halting; cultural attitudes and habits have changed at a glacial pace. We think we have made progress, but we have become so used to the ‘racial divide’ in our nation, that in many cases, we do not even realize it is there! The sad and shocking thing is, these killings will continue. Too much of white America doesn’t see the problem. Many subconsciously believe that the shooting victim(s) “deserved it”!

None of this means the situation can’t change. However, until the white people in America can see clearly this injustice occurring, and realize the freedoms and values that we as Americans believe in are not available to everyone, it will continue. Until it tugs at our own sense of fairness and justice, a lot of white people in America will remain unmoved to act. Denying the impact of white privilege on this country’s judicial system creates more injustice, more inflamed rhetoric, more grief, more rage. . . and more deaths!

I saw a sign held by protester at a rally that said: ‘White Silence is Violence’.

Truly, if you do not listen to others who are not like you, keep silent when disparaging words are spoken, don’t hold people accountable for their discriminatory conduct, you are just as complicit in racism as those who hold a gun or burn a cross or lynch a man.

White people are in a position of power in this country because of a long-standing power structure that they control. In the opinion of many, much of the political unrest that we are now experiencing stems from the fact that we fear we are losing that control. Are we brave enough to use our ‘white privilege’ to correct that system or power structure? Are we, as white people, willing to do what it takes to stop the systemic murder of young black men, the institutionalized school-to-prison pipeline, the deep, bleeding wound that is racism in America. It is a hard pill to swallow that, in many ways, white people are the source of the problem and only we can change it! People of color may yell, scream, cry, plead or demand justice, but until we are willing to get really uncomfortable with our own participation in a racist society, nothing will change.

Don’t delude yourself that you do not have the power. You may say ‘I’m not racist — I have black friends! I’m a good person!” You may not be rich and you may truly struggle with daily aspects of your life. You probably are a good person, and you may have black friends. BUT, you still benefit from institutionalized racism.

Andrew Rosenthal, a writer for The New York Times, stated:

“The point of the “Black Lives Matter” movement is not that the lives of African Americans matter more than those of White Americans, but that they matter equally, and that historically they have been treated as if they do not.[2]

Speak with people of color, listen, to learn — or perhaps more appropriately, unlearn the racism that has been instilled in us by our country. . . and our churches.

It’s time for white people in America — especially the white American church — to start putting action behind our prayerful social media memes. The unfortunate reality is that America has a really big race problem, and it is white people must take the leadership to fix it. We, who call ourselves followers of Jesus, should be leading the charge, not arguing about the semantics of whose lives’ matter’.

I call on ALL congregations, but especially white congregations, to unite in protest, to refuse to stand in silence, to speak out against racial injustice, to examine our individual lives and attitudes until we understand our participation in racism, and wipe it from our lives!

We must build a society where we no longer see people of color bloodied and broken. . . or dead, due to racial violence.

We must ensure that our children do not take on the racial attitudes and habits that we were so subtly taught.

Join me in acknowledging, understanding and shedding the mantle of our ‘white privilege’.
 
 
[1]      The Social Construction of Whiteness and Women, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA

[2]      Andrew Rosenthal, “The Real Story of Race and Police Killings“, The New York Times; September 4, 2015

 
Written for the Crossroads, Saint John’s Episcopal Church and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 18 July 2016

No Adults In Heaven

Mark 10:2-16

There are no adults in Heaven.

Let me repeat that:

There are No ADULTS in Heaven!

We heard in the Scripture just how much Jesus loved children.

“The promise is for you and your children.”

Notice that this says ‘for YOU and your children. Just because we are adults, we are not excluded from the promise of eternal life and the Kingdom of God.

We also hear that Jesus was upset with the disciples’ refusal to allow the children to come to him – they did not seem to understand his ministry or the importance of children to him.

He said:

Let the little children come to me; do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. (Mark 10:14)

We might ask

‘why children and not adults?

After all, children don’t have much to offer. They are fun to look at and play with and dress up and hold and kiss. But they can’t earn a paycheck; they can’t cook a meal or wash clothes. They can’t cut the grass; they can’t unload the dishwasher. Little children are pretty useless when it comes to doing anything – everything has to be done for them! Little children are dependent upon others for their very survival – they really cannot make it on their own.

So, why children?

Because:

The heart of a child:

offers love and seeks love;

opens spontaneously to others;

shares hopes,

dreams big dreams,

takes chances;

trusts more, fears less.

The mind of a child:

accepts that there is still much to learn;

wonders at every bit of the world;

takes nothing for granted;

asks endless questions;

finds new answers, sees new paths, seek new solutions.

The spirit of a child:

expresses joy;

sees miracles everywhere, every day;

feels blessings;

welcomes God;

seeks to connect itself to others;

is constantly amazed by life.[1]

 

What does that mean?

When adults look at a dandelion patch, we see a bunch of weeds that threaten to take over our yard. Children see flowers for Mom and white fluff you can blow away after you make a wish.

We need to see the flowers again.

When we look at a street person, we often conclude they are a smelly, dirty person who probably wants some of our money. Children smile at street people and delight when they smile back.

We need to smile more.

When we hear music, we worry about getting the words, notes, and rhythm just right. Children feel the beat and move with it. They sing out the words, and if they don’t know them, they pretend they do and make up some words.

We need to tap our feet more and sway our hips to some nonsense songs again.

When adults pray, we ask,

“God, grant me this” or “Give me that.”

Children pray, “

“Thank you, God, for my mommy and daddy and my toys and friends.”

When children say their prayers, they come into the presence of God with a tremendous sense of wonder. When we adults say our prayers, our minds are often distracted by how we give God a hand in securing the answers we want, or how to pray with theological precision.

Let me tell you a story:

A mother put ting her children to bed, and as she walked by the bathroom, she saw her daughter leaning over the bathtub and running water in it. She had six dolls lined up on the floor and had decided the dolls needed to be baptized. Having been to a baptismal service earlier, she was doing the best she could remember. She put the first doll in water and said

‘I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and in the hole you go.’

That’s what she thought the pastor had said.

This is the innocence of children!

We must not do anything to keep “little ones” from knowing the grace and power of Jesus!

We, adults, are always trying to define our place in the “pecking order” of life. Jesus was quite angry with the disciples because they denied the children’s access to him, apparently because they didn’t deem the children worthy of his time, energy, and attention. Jesus turned their common worldly values upside down and reminded them they needed to pay more attention to the innocence of children than their own sense of importance if they were ever going to understand God’s Kingdom.

Notice the last part of Mark 10:14-15:

for the kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these. Truly, I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.

When Jesus says, ‘truly I tell you,’ this is not a suggestion or offhanded remark. He is stating an absolute!

Jesus calls us to become like a little child if we ever hope to enter the kingdom of God. We must have faith like a little child, become dependent like a little child, and receive the kingdom as a gift from God.

We must come before God with our insignificance, and our lack of ultimate security, and our total dependence upon him, and throw ourselves at his mercy. He is the forgiver, and we are the ones in great need of forgiveness.

We need to remember, regardless of our age, we are

all children of God. . .

helpless, dependent on his mercy and grace.

So, the question becomes, how did we lose our childhood faith and optimism in God?

How did we become so jaded that we feel we have the answers to all questions?

How did we look on others as people to be avoided, not embraced?

How did we discount the innocence and silliness of children?

And can we reclaim that?

We need to look at the world through childlike eyes. . .

We need to look at our neighbors and see other children of God . . .

We need to pray for forgiveness and the opening of our eyes.

And, if we can reclaim our childhood faith, then

There will be no adults in Heaven!

Amen

               Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Columbus, OH; 3 October 2021


[1]              Leonard Sweet, Collected Sermons, ChristianGlobe Networks

 

A Little Child

Mark 9:30-37

ME!  . . .

ME! . . .  

ME FIRST! . . .

How often have we heard children scream this when they wanted to be ‘special’? And let’s admit it, we adults also have the same reaction – albeit a little more subtle and pleading under our breath,  

(‘please let it be me’!).

Jesus heard the same thing while he and the disciples were walking through Gallilee. Each of the disciples was jockeying to be the ‘greatest’, the ‘favorite’ of Jesus. It is human nature to want to be at the top of the heap, whatever that heap is.

But Jesus admonished his disciples:

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)

He then brought a little child into their midst and told them:

Here were all these grown men who had been following Jesus for a long time, and Jesus has the audacity to include a little child into their inner circle! Imagine how rejected they might have felt.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37)

A little child!

What does a little child have to do with which one of them is the greatest, the favorite?

Children held an interesting place in the first century household for both Jews and Romans.  They represented the future—they would carry on the family name, provide for their aging parents, and produce the next generation. But as little children, they were a liability; small children were more likely to contract an illness and die. They couldn’t really help with daily life, and just represented another mouth to feed.

But, the child in this passage represents all of God’s people (no matter the age). The greatest people in God’s kingdom are not the rich and powerful, but the poor and helpless; not the ones with the most servants, but those who serve others the most. Jesus argued that if we help those who are humble, lowly, poor, or oppressed we will be ‘the greatest’ from his point of view.

Kids — munchkins — rug rats — ragamuffins — you have to love them, no matter what you may call them. And Jesus obviously did.

They are the ones Jesus commands us to welcome. With children, it is not a question of who is great and who is not, but instead a question of welcome. Jesus isn’t interested in who we say is the greatest or even who acts like the greatest or seems to be the greatest. Jesus is interested in who acts with the greatest grace, compassion, and love.

Every single human is born and blessed by God with an innocent spirit; but our life experiences expose us to attitudes, joys, sorrows, fears, and goals. The older we get, we become jaded by the world we live in. As we age, we unlearn what it means to be the original kind of human being God created us to be. The older we get, the more we believe somehow that we know best.

But Jesus reminds us of something very important. When it comes to knowing what it means to be authentically human, loving, and faithful, our best role models are our children.

Children don’t edit themselves; they just tell it as it is. A child can teach us to play, to return to our innocence. The child is not looking for power, or greatness, or status, or wealth. The child’s heart has a purity that is still innocent and loving and does not discriminate.

To receive as a child is to have a vision of the way the world is meant to be. In Jesus’ mind this is what it means to be a “great” disciple: loving, pure, authentic, honest, unspoiled by the negatives of life. To be a disciple of Jesus, we must re-learn this innocence, remember how to think and feel like a child.

You may know a story told of the physicist Albert Einstein. One of his neighbors, the mother of a ten-year-old girl, noticed that her child often visited Einstein’s house. The woman wondered at this, and the child explained: “I had trouble with my homework in arithmetic. People said that at No. 112 there lives a very big mathematician, who is also a very good man. I asked him to help me. He was very willing and explained everything very well. He said I should return whenever I find a problem too difficult.”

Alarmed at the child’s boldness, the girl’s mother went to Einstein to apologize. Einstein said, “You don’t have to apologize. I have learned more from the conversations with this child than she has from me.”[1]

Einstein, as famous and ‘great’ as he was, was more than willing to welcome this child into his home to help her with her arithmetic. That was a sign of true greatest!

Jesus drives home the seriousness of his message of welcoming as a child when he says,

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42)

Jesus’ love for children is immense. In every adult, there is an inner child, full of wonder. It is only through the wonder that we can experience the glory and the greatness of God.

Our lives, as we reach adulthood and forward are filled with aspirations and challenges, experiences and pain that drag us down and discourage us from believing in beauty, love, kindness, and forgiveness. Before you know it, we can become bitter and cautious about others and guarded about ourselves.

But in Jesus, we have hope for new beginnings, new life, new innocence, and always new resurrections. For Jesus is Lord of Resurrection.

Greatness comes to us when we share with others who have nothing to share with us. Think of the young boy who shared his five loaves and two fishes with 5000 people who contributed nothing but their hunger (John 6:9). In Jesus’ eyes, this boy child was great.

So Jesus reminds us that

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37)

Let us think about how we, at Saint John’s, welcome the child – the child in each of us? How do we welcome strangers and each other that exemplifies the innocence of a child?

This is how we should welcome Jesus and everyone we come in contact with.

Let us pray:

God, grant me the courage

to go without armor

or the privilege of being right.

Give me the humility

to renounce my imagined rank,

and take the lowest place.

Give me the heart to love without power

and serve without status,

to be last and not first,

a child in a world of big people.

God, grant me

the faith to trust my belovedness,

the wisdom to rely on your Spirit’s power,

the humility to serve,

and the courage to love.

Amen.[2]


[1]      Richard Muller, Now — The Physics of Time

[2]      Steve Garnass- Holmes, Unfolding Light

 

Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Columbus, OH; 19 September 2021

Let Us Be ‘Jesus People’

Mark 8:27-38

And His Name shall be called, Wonderful, Counselor, Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace”

The time is drawing near when we all sing those familiar and beloved words from Handel’s Messiah, describing Jesus as a ‘mighty God’, a royal ‘Prince of Peace’ – underlined with tympany drums and trumpets, exaggerated and joyous rhythms!

We hear in the Gospel that when Jesus asked his disciples who they think He is. Peter is the first to answer, identifying Jesus as the ‘Messiah’, the Hebrew word referring to the expected ‘Prince of the Chosen’, anointed by God to redeem his people, and foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament. The Jews were now under the subjugation of the Romans, looked for a ‘savior’, a ‘Messiah’ to release them from their bondage.

Peter had great hopes for Jesus’ future. If Jesus was the ‘Messiah’, Peter wanted Him to assume the role of God’s Anointed, and become the long-awaited powerful leader of the Jews. Jews believed that

  • the ‘Messiah’ would drive out the oppressive Romans through power ands war;
  • the ‘Messiah’ would defeat all the enemies of the Jews,
  • the ‘Messiah would provide justice in the land
  • and the ‘Messiah would restore the general welfare of the Jewish nation

– meaning in reality, the Jewish people would at last rule the earth.

Peter envisioned a great and glorious future for Jesus the ‘Messiah’.

But this isn’t why Jesus had come. Jesus almost immediately began to teach his followers something completely different about the world, the Kingdom of Go and what His real power was. Rather than becoming a triumphant conqueror, Jesus would face great suffering; many prominent leaders of his own people (the Pharisees and Sadducees, the chief priests and scribes) would reject him. Jesus went on to shock His disciples by saying that he would be killed. Yes. Actually slain. They would see him die.

Jesus tells Peter, and the rest of the disciples:

You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:33)

That divine things were not power, domination, wealth, or status, but peace, love, generosity and caring for all God’s children. Those were stunning, stinging words, but they were words they needed to hear. And they are words that, more than ever, that we need to hear. It is human nature to get so caught up in our own desires and wishes, our own agendas for ourselves and our loved ones that we do not spend much time focusing on divine things, especially the message of God as taught by his Son, Jesus. But the truth is that it is only as we seek to know and do the path of God in all things, that we discover happiness and path for our lives.

Yet, if our main focus is often upon the marvelous dreams and hopes we have for our loved ones and ourselves? What can be wrong with that? An argument can well be made that we should have great hopes and visions for ourselves and our family members and friends. Surely there is nothing wrong and everything right with setting a goal to strive for.

There is only one caveat, one warning we should heed. Our goals and strivings need to be in line with the path God shows us. If they are not, in spite of whatever we might achieve, there will always be a feeling of something missing, something not quite right, in last,,,, status, power or wealth without inner joy.

It is quite clear that God wants us to choose carefully where we focus our minds and action. When Peter rebuked Jesus, Peter was focusing on his desire that Jesus be the militant and powerful ruler who would set things right in the world. Jesus, however, was intent on following the divine plan, the leadership of God wherever that lead. Even if the short-term future promised to be frightening and full of pain and suffering; even if a cross was in His future, Jesus taught and lived the path toward God’s Kingdom.

There is a great lesson here. When you and I make the proper choices, when we truly seek the mind of God as we travel down life’s road, we will find that we can handle whatever comes, even death itself.

However, if we decide instead to center on human things — on the temporary rather than the everlasting — well, we will find ourselves heading for chaos and disappointment. Sometimes we may discover our life totally out of control and in a desperate condition. Our lives will only be truly fruitful and meaningful as we center on the path to God set out 2,000 years ago by Jesus. As we go from day to day, we would do well to develop a pattern of seeking the mind of God regarding each choice we face.

In his first sermon, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry reminded us:

“God came among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to show us the Way. He came to show us the Way to life, the Way to love. He came to show us the Way beyond what often can be the nightmares of our own devisings and into the dream of God’s intending.

This is the Jesus Movement, and we are The Episcopal Church, the Episcopal branch of Jesus’ movement in this world..” [1]

Perhaps we would do well to follow something like the guidelines for daily Christian living developed by the Trappist Monks in the Abbey of the Genesee. It reads as follows:

This is the beginning of a new day. God has given me this day to use as I will. I can waste it or use it for good. What I do today is important because I’m exchanging a day of my life for it. When tomorrow comes, this day will be gone forever, leaving in its place something I have traded for it. I want it to be gain, not loss; good, not evil; success, not failure; in order that I shall not regret the price I paid for it.

You and I are free to live our lives as we please, if we choose. But those who are spiritually wise know that the precious gift of a free will is only truly meaningful and joyous when we surrender completely, day by day, to the One who knows best how our lives are meant to be lived.

Rather than as a powerful ruler, Jesus spent His life as one of service, of humility, and sacrifice. Jesus came to earth to serve, not be served. His service ultimately cost him his life. And in so loving and dying – as a humble and loving servant, He showed us the way to find salvation – inestimable joy and meaning in our lives!

“Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)

That’s the question Jesus asks each of us. He doesn’t want to know what we would like him to be, or want him to be … or even need him to be. Jesus wants a relationship with us so that we can know “who” he is.

We answer that question each day of our lives with our choices and priorities.

The lyrics of a popular contemporary song by Brendan Graham and Rolf Lovland that communicates what Christ is ready to do for us and through us.

“When I am down and, oh my soul so weary;
When troubles come and my heart burdened be;
Then I am still and wait here in silence,
Until You come and sit awhile with me.

There is no life, no life without its hunger.
Each restless heart beats so imperfectly,
But when You come and I am filled with wonder,
Sometimes, I think I glimpse eternity.

You raise me up so I can stand on mountains,
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas,
I am strong when I am on Your shoulders,
You raise me up to more than I can be.” [2]

Jesus speaking this, His Holy Spirit is there for each of us, whose example has assured us eternal life. We are beloved children of God, all brothers and sisters of Jesus. If we live His way, as His people, our communities, nation and planet will be a brighter, happier place – and our lives will be more full and rich than we ever dreamed possible!

Let us go forth into the world each day, being ‘Jesus People’.

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

     

[1]   Delivered at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, New York City, November 2, 2015

[2]   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLzshoYSull

 

Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 16 September 2018

Are We Going to Live in Fear or Faith?

Mark 4:35-41

God, Be in our heads, Be in our hearts, Be in our understanding, Be in the words heard and the words spoken. Amen.

I have a guilty habit to share: I enjoy reading adventure novels: Jason Bourne, Dirk Pitt, Jack Ryan — I buy them in paperback and usually read them in a couple of days. They are brain candy, empty calories, but I still am addicted to them.

The heroes in these books share at least one thing in common: they have learned to manage their fears. Over and over again, when faced with situations that would paralyze most of us, they can consider their options, make a plan, and execute that plan. And, of course, they ultimately come out on top. (Hard to have a series if you kill off the hero.) They have faith in themselves, their abilities, and those around them.

In today’s gospel, we heard Jesus ask the disciples:

“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith? (Mark 4:40)

Take a minute and think about how many times you have heard this, or maybe heard:

O ye of little faith” (Matthew 8:26)

I ask, what is this faith that we are supposed to have?

So, I went to the Webster’s Dictionary, where faith is defined as “confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea or thing.” But there was also this explanation of faith: “Belief not based on logical proof or material evidence.”

“Belief not based on logical proof or material evidence”

jesus in boat with disciples calming the storm000We find the disciples in a boat, on a rough sea, afraid of capsizing, and Jesus is sleeping! They were afraid – their faith that everything will be okay is lacking. They cry to Jesus:

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38)

Jesus calmed the storm, and turns to the disciples and asks:

“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40)

At issue is faith (Mark 4:40) . . . and fear (Mark 4:41).

Jesus called out their fear, not because being afraid in that situation was wrong, but because the way they handled their fear showed a lack of faith.

We are not called to be fearless. We are called to face our fears by knowing that someone greater than our fears is always present and that someone cares and can act.

Jesus didn’t rebuke His disciples for waking Him up. He didn’t give them a lecture about their lack of trust in His ability. Instead, He recognized the desperate state they were in. He knew they couldn’t control the storm; when they were at their wit’s, they called out to him.

We must never feel that anything should stop us from taking our needs to Jesus, no matter how small they may seem. If something concerns us, it concerns Jesus as well; if we have fear, we can take it to Jesus.

This weekend America is celebrating Juneteenth, commemorating the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Texas were finally officially informed that they were free

two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed,

and two months after the Civil War ended.

Its name is derived from a combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth” This celebration represents granting of freedom for African Americans since 1619, when they were first brought over to America.

Slaves had lived in constant fear:

    • of murder and lynching,
    • of cruel punishment or maiming,
    • of separation of families,
    • of being sold like cattle to a white person.

Although the slaves were legally freed, in actuality, the Emancipation Proclamation did not liberate many of the slaves; the promise of freedom and land was replaced by the Jim Crow laws, creating a different type of fear – one of domination, and persecution, and murder. To the government, they were still three-fifths of a human being.

But no matter, our Black brothers and sisters had faith in Jesus, and the love of God kept them going, knowing deep in their hearts that they would someday be free.

This week President Joe Biden established Juneteenth as a national holiday! It is fitting that we mark this holiday in our struggle to remove white supremacy from this nation. Now we all need to work harder to prevent voter suppression and other archaic laws still aimed at minimizing the worth of people of color.

We also celebrate LGBTQA Pride this weekend. For many years, gay men and women were illegal in the United States, and in most states. On June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Union bar in New York City, police attacked those patrons of the bar. Gay and lesbian men and women then took to the streets and began the fight for gay civil rights; this was the origin of Gay Pride. Even today, LGBTQA persons constantly live under the fear

    • of beatings and death (often by law enforcement or mobs),
    • At least two transgenders are murdered each week,
    • being fired from jobs,
    • denied housing (most homeless youth are gays who have been kicked out of their homes by their parents)
    • not being allowed to enjoy the civil rights granted to other Americans.

On a personal note, when my parents found out I was gay, they disowned me and swore to shame me to the rest of my family. After visiting my place of employment and raising a ruckus about how I would never amount to anything, I was fired for being gay.

There are fast-food restaurants and hobby stores that actively support legislation to rescind equal rights to our gay and transgender brothers and sisters. And many churches will not accept us and actively seek to demonize and alienate us from the love of God. Recent Ohio legislation, if passed, will allow healthcare professionals to refuse treatment of gays based on their personal religious beliefs.

But, just like people of color, gays have faith in Jesus and know that we are all beloved children of God, that “all people are created” in God’s eyes.

No matter our skin color, or sexual orientation, or gender identity, everyone of us is often afraid!

Like the disciples, we fear many things. Our small boats seem shaky as we are tossed about on life’s sea. Storms of hate and pain, war and poverty, discrimination and alienation shake us and threaten to swamp our very beings.

Ultimately, fear is something that all of us experience and have to learn to conquer. Indeed, life is full of things that can make us afraid.

Though the storms of life will still come, though we may face the next day with apprehension and anguish, we do not need to fear. We can meet the chaos with courage and find the peace of Christ.

Mark Twain said, in his novel Pudd’nhead Wilson,

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not the absence of fear. We will still be afraid, and sometimes rightly so—but our faith will sustain us and give us mastery of fear.”[1]

Jesus calmed the storm, saying, as he had said many other times:

“Peace! Be still!” (Mark 4:39)

The peace of Jesus does not come from the absence of storms. As long as we walk upon this earth, there will be storms that come our way. The peace comes from the knowledge that Jesus is with us in the storm!

We must realize that we are in the boat with Jesus, that Jesus is with us and that we are never alone; no matter the storm, no matter the struggle, no matter the circumstances. We are in the boat with Jesus. This should give us great comfort, relief, strength, and faith.

But instead of realizing that we are in the boat with Jesus, we only see the waves and the wind and the water coming into the boat. And, like Peter when he tried to walk on water (Matthew 14:29-30), when we take our eyes off Jesus, we end up faltering.

Keep your eyes on Jesus!

Our genuine faith comes out in a crisis. When we have a crisis, we have three options:

    • If we choose to worry, all of us know deep down that nothing will change
    • We can try harder and work until there is nothing else we can do and we realize we have no control.
    • Or we can ask for his help and put our complete trust in Him.

Here is the reality. We are either headed into a storm, in the middle of a storm or coming out of one. We need to learn from our storms. God is teaching us something about Himself, about us, and the storms of life. See the storms of life as an opportunity for God to display who He is and for us to increase our faith.

When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person that walked in. That’s what the storm is all about. You will see Jesus differently, and you will see yourself differently.

Not all storms come to disrupt our lives; some come to clear a path. Some storms help us to see some things more clearly.

Think about these questions:

  1. Has a trial you’ve gone through made you stronger spiritually?
  2. When was your faith most tested?
  3. Whom have you turned to in fear and found faith?

Are we living in fear or faith?

Let us pray:

Dear loving Lord, we are feeling stress. We are worried. Too many things occupy our minds. Please show us your order; let us trust in your will alone. Your Word tells us where there is love; there is no fear. Your perfect love drives out all fear. Let us be filled with your love, the faith that tells us we can do all things through you. In Jesus’s name. Amen.

[1]      Mark Twain, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson and the Comedy Those Extraordinary Twins, The Century Magazine, 1894,

Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Columbus, OH; 20 June 2021

“A Country Divided Cannot Stand”

Mark 3:20-35

Dear Lord, may your words be heard in our ears, felt in our hearts, and carried in our souls. Amen

Just about every family has that one family member who is a little different from everyone else. This is the person who, at family reunions, everyone talks about to others, or rolls their eyes when he or she does something perceived as ‘strange’. If you are the only person that few others speak to at the family reunion; then, it’s you! You’re the “different one” that everyone else is talking about. They may find you are “eccentric” because you keep up with the fashion trends and hairstyles (or perhaps, because you don’t). They may think you are “weird” because every time you open your mouth, you put your brain on parade, or you talk about current events, or ideas, rather than gossip. They may think you are ‘odd’ because you prefer Beethoven to Beyonce, or birdwatching to baseball. Heaven forbid, someone might have a different idea or viewpoint!

In today’s Gospel from Mark, we read about, when early in his ministry, Jesus went home to Nazareth. People thronged to see him, and crowded around him constantly. But, the things he is saying and doing are so unusual – so beyond their scope of understanding that most believe he is out of his mind, and even consorting with the devil. They heard he had healed people – even healed a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath! They had heard that people from far and near, came to be healed, and called him “The Son of God”. They heard he spoke in parables or stories, teaching an entirely new approach to living – to loving and caring for one another, despite differences in rank, or wealth; he spoke of loving Pharisees and tax collectors, even gentiles! His mother and brothers came trying to talk some ‘sense’ into their wayward son and brother, asserting

He has gone out of his mind. (Mark 3:21)

or

He was possessed of an unclean spirit. (Mark 3:30)

And should be taken away.

He was definitely the “different one” in the family!

But that did not stop him.

I think it is interesting to consider, that if Jesus were with us today, and said the same things to us, would we think any differently? If he spoke to us today about welcoming strangers, loving others who are different in race, background, or opinions, wouldn’t we, too, believe that he was out of his mind? If he criticized the hypocrisy of some of our political and church leaders of today, would we think him a rabble-rouser who should be jailed? How often do we believe that what Jesus asks us to do is impractical and impossible in today’s world?

We heard him say in today’s scripture:

If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. (Mark 3:24-25)

This is a famous quote often used by clergy in sermons, and government officials when trying to highlight the cultural divisions that separate people.

There is a long history of noteworthy people using this scripture to comment on the dissension within the country.

This biblical passage was used by Abraham Lincoln in an address before his presidency on June 16, 1858. In that address, which came to be known as “A House Divided Speech,” Lincoln said:

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.

By saying that a house divided cannot stand, Jesus is illustrating the fact that the strength of a movement or idea or a nation relies on people coming together in unity. This is something we see in daily life all the time. Whether it is a business, a sports team, a political party, or a church, everyone has to work together if anything is to be accomplished.

Right now we are probably living in the most divisive time that the United States has faced since the Civil War, 160 years ago. Even during the Viet Nam war, the country was not as divided as it is now.

Our nation today is so divided that some think the cherished democratic system that generations have worked so long to build and preserve, may cease to exist. Politicians have forgotten that state, local, and federal officials are elected to “serve the needs of the people”, and are driven by their own ideology, passions, greed, and lust for power.

We have political leaders whose supporters participated in the insurrection against the Capitol of the United States and our elected officials in January 2021, in an attempt to change the clear outcome of our presidential election. Some political party officials and special interest groups are destroying valid vote ballots through fake ‘audits’ and enacting legislation that would try to stop anyone from voting who doesn’t agree with them. These activities are supported by bands of militia-type groups that carry guns and assault weapons. High-ranking security personnel and elected representatives intimate a governmental coup is a possibility.

There is overt discrimination and assaults against anyone considered to be the “different one

  • Asian Americans are blamed for creating the COVID virus,
  • Latinx immigrants and refugees are rejected for coming here to escape poverty, violence, and dictatorships
  • LGBTQ Americans are deemed sinners because their sexual orientation and gender identity are not understood;
  • Jewish Americans are again being targeted as warmongers and elitists.

When we divide people into categories of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identification, or where they live, problems always occur. One only has to think of the Holocaust, or genocides like those that took place in Bosnia, Rwanda, or Darfur to see the results of this division.

Jesus urged unity among believers because, once divisions and conflict beset a nation, productivity, progress, and prosperity inevitably grind to a halt, and the entire culture is weakened and becomes vulnerable to attack, and eventual destruction.

More importantly, IT. IS. WRONG!

Human beings must learn to live together or the world is lost!

As Jesus said:

“Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall.” (Mark 30:24-25)

As a free people, living in a nation that has become an example for the entire world of a just and peaceful ‘shining city on a hill’, we cannot let this dream – this amazing experiment in freedom and equality – die.

As Christians, we cannot let our amazing country, which has succeeded because we have followed the teachings of Jesus to live in harmony with others, and care for and support one another – we cannot sit by and let it be destroyed!

No, we are not a perfect nation – we have not lived up 100% to the ideals of our Constitution, but for over 245 years, we have provided leadership to a free world with justice and equality for all, and we cannot convert the world from its emphasis on greed and power unless we are united in purpose – unless we love one another. When we ignore the teachings of Jesus to have our own way, the result is discord and disunity.

Unity begins with us.

Responsibility begins with each of us.

I am reminded of the quote by Pastor Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionist, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.

For our nation to be successful, we have to learn to work together as one people, uniting and strengthening our nation again.

As we pray in the Prayers of the People:

“That we all may be one,
That there may be justice and peace on the earth.”

So, healing the divisions of our nation begins with us.

We must be proactive, and not assume someone else will take care of things.

We must pull together and listen to seek to understand one another.

We must love one another as God has loved us.

So, as we approach our nation’s birthday, let us cherish each individual as our brother and sister in Christ, and then, if we stand together, we can surmount any difficulties that might lie ahead of us, and, perhaps, one day realize the Kingdom of God on this earth.

Let us pray:

In this century and in any century,
Our deepest hope, our most tender prayer,
Is that we learn to listen.
May we listen to one another in openness and mercy
May we listen to plants and animals in wonder and respect
May we listen to our own hearts in love and forgiveness
May we listen to God in quietness and awe.

And in this listening,
Which is boundless in its beauty,
May we find the wisdom to cooperate
With a healing spirit, a divine spirit
Who beckons us into peace and community and creativity.

We do not ask for a perfect world.
But we do ask for a better world.
We ask for deep listening.[2]

Amen.

[1]  “A House Divided,” Info USA, Us Department of State

[2]  Jay McDaniel, Professor of Religion, Hendrix College, Arkansas

Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Columbus, OH; 6 June 2021

Be Brave, Like “Doubting Thomas”

May the meditations of my heart and the words of my mouth be acceptable to you, my Lord, my rock and Redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

Today’s gospel reading is one of the best-known Eastertide gospels – that of “Doubting Thomas”. We almost never hear the name of this disciple without the label of “Doubting”. Most people, no matter how non-religious, have heard about “Doubting Thomas”.

You may be interested to know that in the first three gospels we are told absolutely nothing at all about Thomas. He is just a name in a list of the disciples (Mark 3:18, Matthew 10:3, Luke 6:15), a faceless man among the twelve. It is in John’s Gospel that he emerges as a distinct personality, but even then there are only 155 words about him. Retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong believes that the writer of John created Thomas as a metaphor for those who are always ‘doubting’ or questioning. “Doubting Thomas” has become the vocabulary of the world for people who doubt or question the status quo  – they are often called “Doubting Thomas”.[1] 

The first time Jesus appeared to the disciples, Thomas was not there; he was being “Brave Thomas” – brave because he was not hiding in an upper room. Not cringing at every sound, hiding in the darkness so no one would know he was there. 

If you think about the last fourteen months of the COVID pandemic, you can understand why the disciples were hiding. We have social isolation, racial injustice, gun violence, and political strife.  And though we are a resurrection people, we are also a people in pain.  The world around us is still wounded, and the scars we’re carrying from this past year will likely last a long time.

We find the other ten disciples cowering in a room, afraid to come out. The doors were shut and locked; the drapes were drawn, the windows were closed and the disciples were full of fear and despair. They had just seen their Lord and Master crucified on a cross and buried. Then on the third day His body disappeared from the tomb.

Although the angels at the tomb tried to reassure them, they were still afraid.

Thomas was not in the room with the others – we don’t know where he was, but I imagine he was out among the people, buying food for those hiding in the room. Being ‘brave’ because he could have been identified as a follower of Jesus, which could have led to his death. Out in the world, trying to accept that Jesus was gone, and not quite ready to admit that he has risen from the dead. But surely, he was despairing – the one in whom he had put all his faith was dead. Yet, today we should be glad for his doubt, for we, like Thomas, did not see Jesus appear resurrected, and our doubt is much like his.

The second time Jesus appears to the disciples, Thomas was there and Jesus admonished him:

“Stop doubting and believe” (John 20:27)

Jesus told Thomas to believe and accept His resurrection as true – to have ‘faith’.

What then is this ‘faith’ we are supposed to have? 

Faith is a ‘complete trust or confidence in someone or something’. It is, from a religious standpoint, a strong belief in God or doctrines based on spiritual awareness, rather than proof. Jesus goes on to tell Thomas: 

“blessed are those who believe and have not seen”. (John 20:29)

In fact, not only Christians, but all human beings, really, live every day by faith.

  • We go to sleep assuming by faith that we will wake up.
  • We kiss our loved ones goodbye, having faith that we will see them again.
  • We drive to the grocery store with the faith that we will return home safely with our groceries. 
  • We plant our gardens in the fall with faith that they will blossom in the spring.

And most crucially, we live every day knowing at some point that we will die, and that somehow it will be alright.

But we cannot prove that, nor can we understand what really happens when we die. These are all elements of ‘having faith’.  

But does faith mean we do not doubt?

No

Faith does not eliminate doubt. Most people, if they are honest with themselves, will admit that they are troubled from time to time with doubts about whether what they’ve been taught is true. Even saintly Mother Teresa wrote of her doubts in her diaries, saying:

“[But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see

 – Listen and do not hear

–the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak ” 

Even this holy woman had doubts, yet her faith was strong. 

Doubt is defined as: ‘a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction; a hesitancy to believe; not being certain about something, especially about how good or true it is.’

I submit to you that being a “Doubting Thomas” and questioning life is not a bad thing. We should do it. When we ask ourselves difficult questions, we get answers that can deepen our faith and provide us with the tools we need to live a more purposeful life and have a closer relationship with God. 

Indeed, we can learn a valuable lesson from Thomas: We must doubt and then move beyond doubt into faith. It is all right to doubt, but we must move beyond doubt. 

Jesus told Thomas that those 

who believe even if they have not seen are blessed. (John 29:29)

We are those blessed people!

But, we, like Thomas, can still be filled with doubt!

So, what if we find ourselves with serious doubts. 

What should we do? 

When we doubt, we begin to examine our lives to determine what is true, what is right, what is good for us. That is the human process – it leads to a better understanding of ourselves, our world, and our relationship with eternity. And each one of us must travel that journey at our own pace and in our own time.

So, is there a real purpose for doubt in our Christian faith? ABSOLUTELY!

Doubt is what enables our faith to grow. Today’s gospel passage tells us this. In the beginning of the text Jesus had appeared to the disciples and they believed. They had to share it with others. 

Thomas was not in the room when Jesus first appeared to the disciples, and when he heard what happened, he did not believe what they were saying. Thomas had little faith in what the disciples were saying because it was, frankly, unbelievable, and he needed more proof. Jesus was dead – he had seen him brutally tortured and murdered, he saw his lifeless body buried in a tomb.

When Jesus appeared to the disciples a second time, however, Thomas was there and “brave” enough to say for all to hear,

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, and place my finger where the nails were, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25)

Did Jesus chastise Thomas for his unbelief? No! He understood the reason for his doubts and said:

“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” (John 20:27)

And Thomas believed!

Doubting Thomas was very much like each of us, wanting to believe and still unsure that Jesus had actually risen. He wanted to see the scars and touch them to reassure himself that it was really true – Jesus was alive and had overcome death. Just as Thomas doubted, we feel compelled by our doubts to see for ourselves. Just as Thomas wanted tangible proof, we, in our complex and cruel world, need to be reassured that what Jesus promised us is true – that life is eternal – that to live as He did, to follow His example of love, compassion, service, and forgiveness – this leads us to true life, here on earth and beyond –  and that where He is eternally, there we will be also. 

Like “Brave Thomas”, we all must be brave and seek, experience, meditate, and question until we come to understanding, through confidence in the word of Jesus, that 

He is true,

His promise is true, 

and we can believe in Him with all our hearts and minds.

Let us pray:

Almighty and ever living God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with sure and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: grant us the faith to truly and deeply believe in Jesus Christ, that our faith may never be found doubting. Empower us to be carriers of that faith to others. Give us the ability to share it so others can know the grace of your salvation, your gracious gift of Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.


[1] Rt Rev John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, HarperOne, 2014

Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church; Columbus, OH, 11 April 2021

Who Is That Holy Spirit?

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen. (Psalm 19:14)

How many of you can remember watching the television show, The Lone Ranger? The Lone Ranger and his trusted horse Silver were my favorite “superheroes” growing up. I thought the Lone Ranger was wonderful, not only because he could ride a horse, but because he was mysterious. He would appear out of nowhere to save the day and then leave before anyone could properly thank him. Those who had been rescued by the Lone Ranger would ask, as he rode off into the sunset, “Who was that masked man?” 

In a way, a similar question might be asked of the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Although the Holy Spirit doesn’t wear a mask, she is sometimes called the forgotten person of the Trinity because we speak so much about God the Father and God the Son, but not as much about the Holy Spirit. However, today at the Day of Pentecost, we turn our thoughts to the Holy Spirit.

For the third time, the disciples and Jesus’ mother Mary were in a locked room, where Jesus had previously visited them. They had just seen Jesus ascend into heaven and felt grief that they would never see him again. Even though Jesus had promised to send the Holy Spirit to help them in the spreading of his teachings, they were not so sure. . .

Why?

Because during Pentecost the Holy Spirit shows up in spades and sets all of Jesus’ followers afire with conviction and determination to spread his teachings.

We hear in Acts 2:2-4:

And suddenly from heaven, there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

So, this Sunday, we celebrate Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. Pentecost comes from the Greek pentēkostē, meaning “fiftieth” – fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection.

Pentecost is one of the greatest stories in all of Scripture. It is the stuff of a Hollywood thriller with the violent rushing winds, divided tongues of fire, the amazing abilities of spontaneously hearing and speaking in foreign languages, fire and smoky mist, young men having visions, old men dreaming.

On this day, the disciples were transformed from men hiding in fear of their lives to throwing caution the wind and walking out into the streets of Jerusalem to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. They traveled far and wide – thousands of miles to India, to Asia Minor, to Turkey, to Greece, to Crete and Sicily, to Syria, to Arabia, to Italy, to Spain, to the British Isles, to Israel and present-day Gaza – all enflamed with the Holy Spirit to spread the good news.

Imagine with me today, what it would be like if Pentecost would happen all over again today…here, right now?

The problem with Pentecost is that it doesn’t fit into our rational, realistic adult outlook on things. And it certainly doesn’t fit into our experience of God. We can get so caught up in the special effects of Pentecost that we miss the real point of Pentecost entirely. Pentecost requires us to make a fundamental decision about two things:

  • what is the reality of our worldview
  • how are we going to live in it in light of Pentecost?

Pentecost should be the greatest feast day and the greatest celebration in the church year; this is the beginning of the church when the community of disciples of Jesus began to undertake the work that Jesus had come to proclaim — the good news and spread that good news throughout the world.

To Christians, Pentecost refers to the down-pouring of the Holy Spirit upon the early church in Jerusalem.

Pentecost was an experience. It is not a denomination; it is not Pentecostalism; it is not the holiness movement; it is not a doctrinal system of beliefs. It is an experience every child of God can receive, as promised in Acts 2:39:

“For the promise is to you and your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”

Not only Jews, but gentiles and all people were to be included in God’s message.

And that diversity and inclusiveness are what make our churches relevant in the world today. As Jesus taught us, we are all children of God and worthy to be loved and part of his kingdom. And we are to spread that ‘good news’ to others by how we live. But the disciples were afraid, or certainly not sure of how to begin this work. Pentecost commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Breath that brought new life to the followers of Jesus huddled in a locked room in Jerusalem. She promised to be always with them (most importantly, also with us) and give us the words and support to spread Jesus’ teachings.

In this day and age, with all the violence and discord in the world, this is not an easy task; challenges of reconciliation and non-violent change for justice are not easy at any time, but with the pandemic, the execution of our Black brothers and sisters, the accompanying rioting and social turmoil over racial inequality, the spread of opioid addictions, and people who have lost their jobs and homes, most of us are at a loss as to what we can do.

Although the Lone Ranger was a fictional character on TV, the Holy Spirit is or can be real, a force in our lives. She speaks to us through our intuition, our dreams, our ‘hunches’ and ‘ah ha’ moments – we just have to ask and listen. She is our holy helper sent by the Father and the Son. So, listen when the Holy Spirit speaks to you through the Bible or fellow Christians. Listen, because the Holy Spirit, our holy helper, speaks nothing but the truth so that we will forever enjoy God’s love in Christ!

When we are unsure of what to do, Jesus said to the disciples and to us:

When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me, and you will testify also because you have been with Me from the beginning. (John 15:26-27)

A clergy poet wrote this for us as a beckoning of the Holy Spirit:

Fire of God,

be my light.

Heat of God,

be my fuel.

Furnace of God,

purify me.

Blaze of God,

be my upward leaping.

 

Spirit of God,

may I burn with your love,

your passion to spread mercy

in this flammable world.

Flame of God,

be my breath.

Wind of God,

be my steady leading.[1]

The power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us not only strengthens our faith, but it causes us to testify:

  • not only to who Jesus is,
  • but also to live the example of Jesus’ life and how He taught us to live as loving, compassionate, and peacemaking children of God,
  • as a witness before others so that what we say will be believed.

The Holy Spirit does not invade us unasked, but, if we truly wish to receive her, She is there for each one of us for the asking. And if we truly want the Holy Spirit to enter our lives, She will be there because we want to change and will welcome the changes that the Spirit will bring. It will also mean that we have recognized our inability to bring these changes about on our own and have realized our need for the Holy Spirit.

Pentecost requires that we look at ourselves and determine whether we will act as the disciples did and go forth and preach the good news.

That is the Pentecost challenge.

Have we asked for the Holy Spirit to breathe on us?

Do we hear that Pentecost challenge?

Will we listen to that Pentecost challenge?

Will we take up that Pentecost challenge?

Let us pray:

Almighty God, thank you for the Holy Spirit who is your Presence in us as we seek to live for Jesus and share your grace with a lost and broken world. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.


[1]      Steve Garnaas-Holmes, Unfolding Light

   Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Columbus, OH; 23 May 2021

 

Election 2020

We are just weeks away from the presidential election, and I know there are many out there who agree with me that I wish it was over. But it is not, and the rhetoric is only going to get worse until election day.

For many reasons, this is one of the most important elections in this century. The ensuring the continuation of the Affordable Care Act, ceasing of destruction of our natural resources, non-politicization of departments of government and effective treatment of the Coronavirus pandemic health are just a few issues that loom in the near future.

Mudslinging, scare tactics, name-calling, lies and promises that can’t be kept aren’t new in 2020. We are bombarded with ‘he said/he said’ and name calling twenty-four hours a day. Each side wants to make statements that will sway the direction we intend to vote. This happens in each U.S. presidential campaigns. Past campaigns show that, even when the political rhetoric gets outrageous, the checks and balances of our constitutional system support the democratic process.

Our nation is in a crisis; I believe we need a leader who can continue the existing progress and turn things around to provide security and justice and equality. In 2020, we will elect a president in what many are calling the most important election in our nation’s history.

But the question that is presented to us is how, as Christians, are we going to make a decision about who we will for. There are some basic tenets of the Christian faith that can help us make sound decisions.
 

Listen, Listen, Listen

Practice active listen skills; listen to hear what they say, not to have a return comment. Listen to all the candidates. Let them completely state their positions before commenting. Is their platform based on Christian principles of caring for the unfortunate, providing a leg up for those who are being oppressed? Are there defined plans of action to accomplish these goals, or only ‘lip service’ to economic equality and social justice?
 

Be Civil

Refuse to participate in the name-calling and nasty rhetoric. There can be no civil discussion when you engage in ‘trash-talking’. If someone starts being uncivil, quietly remove yourself from the discussion; there is no way information can be exchanged is one party is dominating the conversion. Defend the right of all people to speak their mind.
 

Be Aware of Bias

Much of this election campaigning has been consumed with bias, prejudice and racism. Carefully consider any rhetoric which demeans any group of people (women, LGBTs, disabled, immigrants). And remember that Jesus told us we will always have the poor (Matthew 26:11) and strangers (Leviticus 19:4) among us. Jesus taught us that everyone is a beloved child of God.
 

Consider What is Just and Right

Jesus’ consistent theme throughout His life was bringing love and justice to the world. . . justice and righteousness.

Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jeremiah 22:3)

Do the candidates value inclusiveness, caring for the less fortunate, or do they espouse bias, exclusion, prejudice and injustice?
 
Do the candidates honors those who are different from themselves or treat them with disrespect?

And finally,
 
We must pray for all our leaders and the candidates – pray that they will consider the teachings of Jesus in their lives and their elected function.

And if you feel so compelled, get out in the streets and do God’s work, campaigning for your candidate. This is a right of democracy.

And no matter what, no matter who is your favorite (or ‘none of the above’) candidate

WE MUST ALL GO VOTE!

It is the one time that the ‘government for the people’ can actual be determined ‘by the people’.

A Time To Say ‘Good-Bye’

John 17:1-11

What I just read was part of the 17th chapter of John which is known as Jesus’ farewell discourse. Jesus is once again trying to prepare his disciples for what was going to happen, warning them about the future, and equipping them to carry on his ministry.

As we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are very much like those disciples that Jesus was instructing prior to his leaving. The world is in a mess – war, poverty and starvation, racial injustice, climate chaos, general discord, – all covered with a dangerous pandemic of disease pervade nearly every corner of the earth. But there are many people who are doing what needs to be done to try and stem the advance of the virus and keep everyone safe. However, there is also a faction of small and self-absorbed people who want everything to return to ‘normal’ NOW, regardless of the consequences to others. They have no regard for those who might be infected and conceivably die because of their cavalier attitude. I don’t know about you, but I am not ready to die so that everything can go back to someone else’s idea of ‘normal’.

But just like the disciples found after Jesus left, in our hearts, we know there is no going back to the way life was. There is now and will be in the future a new world – a new ‘normal’. And we are all going to have to learn to exist in that new ‘normal’, much like the disciples found as they tried to continue spreading the love of Jesus.

We now know that we live in a global world – what one country does has significant effects on the rest of the world. One of the things we need to work toward is unity in the care of God’s creation and its people. We need to pray not only for our own government and leaders, but for all people, all governments and God’s creation.

At a Promise Keepers Pastor’s Conference held in Atlanta a couple of years ago. Max Lucado reminded us that

“On the last night of his life our Master did not pray for the health of the disciples; for the success of the disciples; even for the happiness of the disciples. He prayed that they would get along with each other.”

We don’t seem to be doing a very good job of getting along, let alone cooperating with each other. In an environment of racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and lack of unity within people, churches, political parties, and governments, we need to remember a part of the Lord’s Prayer:

“on earth as it is in Heaven”.

So, how do we accomplish that? How do we bring about and work toward unity?

First, it has to start with us. We can’t wait for anyone else to start. We have to be proactive. We have to take the first steps. We have to stop doing and saying those things that lead to, cause, and perpetuate divisions amongst us. We have to be the first to act.

Second, we have to pull together. We must conduct our lives in ways that will not only benefit us, but protect and nurture others. We all enjoy the freedom of speech, but scaring people with vitriolic protests, calling people names, and assaulting those who don’t agree with us does not help us work toward unity in any cause, let alone in fighting and controlling this virus.

We also must begin to heal the earth; because of the lack of pollution resulting from sheltering-in-place, for the first time in thirty years you can actually see Mount Everest; photos from the Space Lab show the clear depths of the ocean without all the garbage we continually feed into it. Los Angeles, Beijing, and even Mumbai have clean skies and fresh air. Mother Nature has begun to heal this blue marble that we live on. It is up to us not to return to our old ‘normal’ and start spoiling it again.

The care of people and the planet must begin with all of us, working together for the good of all the people in the world – and for future generations to come.

Unity has to begin with us. Imagine the powerful force we could exert as a people, a congregation, and as the church in the world, if we all “pulled together as a team.” When we have a common purpose; a shared vision, a common goal, then we can do almost anything.

We have hope that this COVID-19 infection will soon subside, medical and pharmaceutical researchers will find a vaccine, and there will be therapeutics for those who are infected and prevent their deaths. But our hope must be accomplished by support of those working to find a vaccine or a cure.

As Jesus prayed for the unity of his followers and church, we must continue to pray; we must pray because we’re not called to do it alone. We’re called to pull together for a worldwide goal.

Unity isn’t easy. Most of us have never learned how to disagree in love. Or how to love those with whom we disagree. But Jesus not only prayed for it, He modeled it for us.

Remember when the disciples came to Him complaining about the people who were preaching and doing signs and wonders in Jesus’ name but weren’t part of the disciples. They were ready to run them out of town or call down lightning upon their heads. Jesus told the disciples not to stop them and said, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit.”

In a Family Circus comic, little Billy was praying. He prayed, “Make me good. And if you don’t get through to me the first time, please keep tryin’ ’til I answer.”[1]  That should be our prayer.

We have to continue to work toward unity and understanding – between each other, between the races, between cultures, between governments, and between people.

It seems quite appropriate that I would be preaching on this Sunday, because it is my farewell sermon – also, this is my last Sunday at Saint Stephen’s. Beginning with Pentecost you will have a permanent Deacon.

As I take my leave, I certainly have met some wonderful people while serving here, although not as personally since a lot of our time has been electronically. But I can say that I am going to miss you all, and will always treasure my time here.

So, on this last Sunday for me at Saint Stephen’s, I leave you with the hope that everyone will pull together, love each other, and work for ‘heaven on earth’, just as Jesus showed us by his life, his teaching, his death and resurrection.

As we continue to destroy the earth and cause pandemics through our own actions, let us ask Mother Earth to direct us as we pray:

Our Mother,

You are hurting and suffering from the selfishness and irresponsibility of your children. We dig into your womb, poison your streams and seas, destroy your forests, and slowly kill you. You have been protecting and nurturing us for ages, and for that, we should be grateful and love you. So, I ask you, our common Mother, to pardon your children and help them find the light buried in their hearts.

Amen

[1]       May 15, 1996, Bill Keane
 
Delivered at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church and University Center, Columbus, OH; 24 May 2020

Jesus Conquered Death

Matthew 28:1-10

Today is the night of the Easter Vigil – an ‘in-between’ time during the Easter Triduum – the three most holy days between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday. Horrible things had happened with Jesus’ death and the joy found in Jesus’ resurrection had not yet occurred.

The disciples were mourning, they didn’t know what to do, they had not understood the coming resurrection; instead they were sequestered in a little room afraid to come out, fearful that they may be killed, isolated as a pariahs from society (much like we are now). They thought they had seen their dream of eternal life dashed with Jesus’ death.

We can imagine how the disciples felt. They were in their ‘in-between time’: between the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter morning. They had suffered in pain while Jesus was betrayed, arrested, tried, convicted, and hung on the cross on Good Friday. Like the veil of the temple, their world was torn apart at the moment of His death.

We also are existing an ‘in-between time’ – the time between when we started ‘sheltering-in-place’ during a worldwide pandemic and whenever that time comes when we are allowed to safely enter back into society without the fear of disease and death. We are all anxious about when that is going to be, and have no doubt about the joy we will feel when we will be able to have personal contact with others.

Probably, the most unnerving thing in all our lives is the fear of death – we don’t what is going to happen. It is a fear that we will go into ‘nothingness’, a big black hole. What we are now and will become will disappear like dust in the wind.

We dream about what it will be like Heaven, where we meet with our friends and family who have gone before us. A place where we will suffer no pain, have no disabilities, have no reason for weeping and mourning.

Fear of death is a morbid, abnormal or persistent fear of one’s own death or the process of dying; a “feeling of dread, apprehension or anxiety when one thinks of the process of dying, or ceasing to ‘be’”.[1] It’s a fear that some how we will die before we have reached our hopes and dreams. . . that we will leave things unfinished. It can be irrational and often debilitating, keeping us from achieving our hopes and dreams.

But by Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection He conquered the most fearful thing of all –

DEATH.

We have been promised by Jesus:

And after I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to myself, so that you will be where I am. (John 14:3)

Death can no longer hold us in constant fear!

Jesus came as a messenger from God – in fact HE was God made man. He came to tell us that God loves us – that life and death are NOT the whole story. The cross of suffering is bare, the tomb is empty.

The rest of the story is eternity – one message:

Like Jesus, we came from God

and will return to God.

God is with us each day of our lives, living in us and in the love of those we see.

As we find ourselves sheltered right now, we have the courage to stay in this place and invite Christ to meet us there. If you know anyone who is dealing with pain, disappointment, or loss—share hope with them – ask them how they’re doing – listen to them – be with them – pray for them. And when the time is right, point them toward the resurrected Jesus. Because life has a way of killing dreams, but Jesus has a way of bringing them,

and us,

back to life!

We are all part of God’s love, God’s eternity and we have nothing to fear – this is the message of Easter – indeed the most joyous season of all.

Let us love one another as He has loved us – and continues to love us throughout eternity.

Phillip Brook wrote his “Easter Carol” reminding us that death is no longer:

Tomb, You shall not hold Him longer,
Death is strong, but life is stronger
Stronger than the dark, the light;
Stronger than the wrong, the right
Faith and hope triumphant say;
Christ will rise on Easter Day.

While the patient earth lies waiting
Till the morning shall be breaking
Shuddering beneath the burden dread
Of her Master, cold and dead,
Hark! she hears the angels say;
Christ will rise on Easter Day.

And when sunrise smites the mountains
Pouring light from heavenly fountains
Then the earth blooms out to greet
>Once again the blessed feet;
And her countless voices say;
Christ has risen on Easter Day. [2]

Jesus Christ is the death of Death! 

Let me say this again:

Jesus Christ is the

Death

of

Death! 

Let us move through this ‘in-between time’ with confidence that through Jesus’ resurrection we will be assured of eternal life.

Let us rejoice and be glad!

Amen.

 
[1]      Farley G.: Death anxiety. National Health Service UK. 2010, found in: Peters L, Cant R, Payne S, O’Connor M, McDermott F, Hood K, Morphet J, Shimoinaba K. (2013).
[2]       Phillips Brook, “The Easter Carol”, Christmas Songs and Easter Carols, (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1903)
 

Delivered at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church & University Center, Columbus, OH; 11 April 2020

Our Charge

Today is Maundy Thursday, the least understood, probably least attended, and surely the most intimate of the Christian holy days.

It was the time of Passover, when all Jews commemorated their escape from the Angel of Death while captives in Egypt. As we partake in our Agape meal at our homes, we share with those Hebrews and Jesus and His disciples in that last meal. This meal is the foundation of the Eucharist we celebrate today; reminding us of Jesus’ suffering and our redemption through His body and blood.

Jesus was aware that His path would be to the cross, and he tried, once again, to get the disciples to understand what would be happening.

The disciples were a rag-tag collection of men who gave up everything – their families, their jobs – to follow this man from Nazareth. There had to have been intense love and respect for Jesus. He had spent almost three years with these men and women, preaching and teaching. Yet, the disciples really don’t understand and were in serious denial that He would be going away.

One last time, Jesus provided an example of how the disciples, and WE are to live in relationship with God.

After the meal, Jesus humbled himself, as a servant, to wash the feet of the disciples – a custom that was relegated to the lowest of the low in the Jewish community. He instructed the disciples to follow his example:

For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them (John 13:15)

This is to remind us that by following His example of humbling himself, we can be more Christ-like and live a more godly life.

Today is call ‘maundy’ from the Latin ‘mandatum’, meaning commandment or order, because of the command that Jesus gave to ALL of us.

Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. (John 13:34)

That is our charge, not only on this Maundy Thursday, but now and for the rest of our lives.

After Jesus had shared a meal with his disciples, He went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. We are told, that for Jesus the Garden of Gethsemane frequently served as a place of quite reflection, and especially for prayers with his heavenly father. He took with him Peter, James and John, to keep him company and possibly protect him.

Jesus prayed that this burden should be lifted from him, but he understood that he must do this alone – there is no  one who could bear the cross or share his pain and death. He alone was the Chosen One – and he accepted that. It was here that Judas came with the Roman soldiers and Jewish temple authorities and arrested him.
 

Delivered at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church & University Center, Columbus, OH; 9 April 2020

“What Does All This Mean?”

John 11:1-45

Good morning to you, wherever you are.

You have just heard our long, well-known and beautiful Gospel reading from John about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Hold that story in you mind as I read you today’s poem by Padraig O’ Tuama, an Irish poet and theologian, entitled “Staring Match”, because I want to suggest a lesson in both that is particularly timely as we deal with this strange disruption in our lives brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic of today.

Staring Match
I stare at the icon
the sacrament and
the sacred story.

I stare at the window
the bread and the
familiar words.

With only myself to blame
I repeat the questions that
restrain me:

What is all this for? and:
What will all this bring? and:
What should I do now?

And then there’s that
great silence
that greets me.

So I try to greet it
with a liturgy for the morning
a little vitamin, hoping that

opening the day with rhythm
might calm the encounter
with the selves I ignore.

Might help a life be lived
more generously.
Might help the eye see inside the icon.

Might help the story sound.
Might help the bread be found
by the place that’s hungry.

For both the poem and biblical story we must surely ask ourselves:

“What does it all mean?”

What is the mystical and prophetic Gospel of John telling us with this amazing story of a dead man brought back to life by Jesus?

And what is O’ Tuama trying to explain with this ‘Staring Match’ – a sort of stand-off between the nagging longing of our souls for meaning and solace as we busy ourselves in our daily routines, and the rather veiled rituals and symbols we have created over the years to try to explain and assuage these longings.

“What does it mean?”

“What is it for?”

And in modern pop phraseology:

“What’s it all about, Alfie?”

At least for me, the core truth in this long reading lies in the 25-26th verses:

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”

There are numerous indications that the Lazarus story is a parable – it is the only occurrence in all of the gospels of this amazing story, and the only mention of Mary & Martha, well-known friends of Jesus, of having a brother. Jesus visited Mary and Martha often, and they appear in all the other gospels, but NEVER is a brother mentioned. Surely, if Jesus had raised a real person, who had been dead for 4 days to life again – and in front of a crowd of people made of synagogue Jews who saw Jesus as a threat – such an event surely would have appeared in every gospel.

So for this and other reasons, this story is surely meant to bring home to all that the way of Jesus is the way to eternal life – to follow the Christ is to never die! And if we can accept that meaning of this story, it is ‘good news’ indeed.

Our work is to ask:

“What does it mean for me?”

How shall I shape my life in light of this ‘good news’? It seems to me that O’ Tuama’s poem catches that moment we all surely feel: amidst the brushing of teeth, the making of coffee, opening the mail, putting on the socks –

“What is this life for?”

“What is MY life for?”

How do the bread and wine, the water and liturgy, the creeds and confessions, the Bible stories and theologies – how do they help ME make meaning of it all?

And now here we are – caught in the middle of a ‘war with an invisible enemy’; all our technology and riches have now been ground to a halt by a sub-microscopic villain. We do not understand, we cannot control it, and we know how ‘to fight the fight’ only by isolating ourselves from one another! And it is the same for all, world-wide – young and old, rich and poor, wise and foolish – it is, in fact, a ‘Great Leveler’ with power to harm and to kill, regardless of where or who we are!

“What is all this for?”

“What will all this bring?”

“What should I do now?”

“WHAT DOES IT MEAN?”

There are many possible answers which we will discuss for decades to come, but we can hope it brings an understanding that (as a banner on medical supplies to Ohio from China said) ‘we are truly all in this together’ – Arab and Jew, Christian and Muslim, the one percent and the homeless beggar, black, brown, yellow, white – we are on this same planet together. Not just one nation under God, but one humanity under our Creator, and we will survive only if we love and care for one another.

We may hope it is for reminding us that we are not in charge, and that we must care for and nourish our planet and all the life on it – that we must live with and learn from nature, as well as live with and learn from one another if we are to survive.

Most of all, perhaps it means, that the only way to live well now and for all eternity is to realize that the life example, the teachings, and the sacrifices of Jesus of Nazareth, of Jesus the man, and Jesus Christ the Son of Creation – to follow these, is the way that gives meaning to everything, to every event of our lives and to every breath we take.

Fear of one another – grasping for power and control and earthly riches will kill us for sure. Love of every living creature and doing to others as we would do for ourselves – this will save us now and forever.

Let us pray:

May we, who are merely inconvenienced, remember those whose lives are at stake. May we, who have no risk factors, remember those most vulnerable. May we, who have the luxury of working from home, remember those who must choose between preserving their health or making their rent. May we, who have the flexibility to care for our own children when their schools close, remember those who have no options. May we, who have to cancel our trips, remember those who have no safe place to go. May we, who settle in for a quarantine at home, remember those who have no home. As fear grips our country, let us choose to love. During this time when we cannot physically wrap our arms around one another, Let us find ways to be the loving embrace of God to our neighbors.[1]
 
 
[1] Adapted from “Prayer for a Pandemic”, +The God Life, Steven Jay Davis; http://www.squanlife.com

Rev deniray mueller, Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church and University Center, Columbus, OH; 29 March 2020

Civil Conversations ARE Possible with Someone from ‘The Other Side’

In today’s environment, it seems that name calling, personal attacks, and party polarization have led to a nearly unprecedented level of incivility between factions of various personal attitudes, and state and governmental policies.  Already, many months prior to the determination of the candidates, and in light of the potential impeachment of the President, the vitriolic rhetoric and general bad manners are likely only going to get worse. With the approach of the 2020 presidential election, we can expect a barrage of political advertisements on social media, the internet, and television, most of which will be negative. As political opinions grow ever more polarized and extreme rhetoric becomes commonplace, can we find a way to find effective ways in which all people, regardless of ideology, can seek compromise, work together, and listen to each other’s ideas?

Americans widely acknowledge that our political climate has dissolved into divisiveness over the past three years, and, so far, there’s no end in sight. Last year, 70 percent of Americans said our country was at least as politically divided as it was during the Vietnam War. Before the holidays, more than half of Americans said they were dreading the idea of even discussing politics with their friends and loved ones.

Civility & Civil Discourse
When we talk about the decline of civility in America, it’s important to explain what we mean by “civility”. Civility is showing mutual respect toward one another. Civil discourse is the free and respectful exchange of different ideas. It entails questioning and discussion, but doing so in a way that respects and affirms all persons, even while critiquing their arguments.

It’s important, when practicing civility and civil discourse, to not only share our viewpoints but to listen to others as well. It doesn’t mean we have to agree, but it does mean we can disagree respectfully. It is possible to be committed to social justice and still think differently about issues and solutions. In fact, it is not only possible – it is likely. Even if we are committed to a common goal, we may also disagree about the means to get there. We will need to have some difficult conversations. If we seek to develop relationships of solidarity across lines of differences, we must be able to engage in constructive and respectful civil discourse.

Employing “ I” and “We”
When we speak in the first person, we are able to express our personal beliefs, thoughts and opinions; often we erroneously use a nebulous “we” – lumping us with an undefined group who may or may not share our thoughts and beliefs. Using “I” helps remove the “us” or “we” and “them” approach which antagonizes and divides. However, there are problems with using “I” as well, especially if the implication is that ‘my thoughts are the only true ones’, as if to say “I am important and you are not; I am smart and you are not”.

A helpful way to use “I” is a way of communicating which allows a person to express how words and actions make them feel without casting any aspersions on the person to whom they are speaking. “When you say this, I feel that.” It works very well as a bridge to civil discourse as opposed to finger-pointing and increased anger. Using “I” statements rather than “we” statements is owning our own “stuff”, and not trying to either force our opinions on someone else or point to someone else as if they were personally an adversary. When personal attacks replace honest debate, no one wins. This kind of attack, no matter the reason, only serves to further divide our communities.

It is our duty and privilege to make room in our hearts for those with whom we disagree. When this underscores all our discussions, opportunities for misunderstanding and anger are decreased. Regardless of our opinions, a Christian is taught to see every other person as a beloved child of God, whose life, needs and opinions are valid.

A Time for Reflection, Prayer and Reconciliation
Now is the time to step away from partisanship and think anew about how we can go forward together. The coming months provide an opportunity for change as Americans seem hungry for a new tone of respect and compromise to emerge in our national conversations. We yearn for elected leaders at the federal, state, and local levels to govern across divides and towards solutions.

There are three things that each one of us can do to promote civil discourse:

  • Reflect on the divisions in the country and how we treat those who have different political views
  • Pray for the forgiveness, humility and wisdom we need to heal our divisions
  • Reach out to other people of faith who have different political views and explore ways to work together.

Guidelines for Civil Discourse
Prior to entering into civil conversation, there needs to be an agreement on guidelines between the parties involved:

  • Do not try to change each other’s views; the goal is to learn from each other and look for common ground
  • The primary emphasis in these conversations is ‘active listening’ – listen to what is being said instead of formulating in your mind how you will respond
  • Be respectful of the other and try not to judge their personal views.

We are told in Luke 6:37:

Do not judge and you will not be judged; do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.

  • Take turns speaking and ensure that each person has equal time to express their ideas
  • Keep the discussion focused on the central question, and don’t get bogged down in irrelevant issues
  • Identify and note areas of agreement
  • Avoid binary thinking. All issues of today are too complex to fit into simplistic black-or-white categories. Dropping ideas into “either/or” thinking immediately defines one against “the other side”, which limits serious and open engagement; when possible consider ‘both/and’ solutions
  • Use language that engages and draws the other into a fruitful exchange of ideas. This requires monitoring and self-censoring the use of dismissive words (such as ‘you may not know about this’, ‘I doubt you will agree with me’).

Guidelines for Use of Social Media
Fewer and fewer people read books and unbiased newspapers, and increasingly people are looking to the internet and their Facebook feeds for information and analysis of social issues. Most people today receive their information through a number of social media instruments (Facebook, Insta-Gram, Twitter, blogs).

Developing a social justice community means that we need to be able to talk about difficult issues in respectful and constructive ways. The question is – can we do that on the internet? As we have already experienced, social media has become a monster that further alienates us from others and provides inaccurate. It is important to note that these sources can be hacked by foreign entities to seek to influence the American people.

Here are some tips of how to stay respectful on social media:

  • Check for accuracy – snopes.com and the “i” notation  on Facebook both provide means of checking the validity of the entry
  • Avoid insults and name calling
  • Seek information from other sources (see unbiased newspapers or television news programs, such as NPR or PBS)
  • DO NOT respond to a posting that upsets you – take a deep breath and come back to it a little later with a non-emotional response (You DO NOT have to respond to every posting!)
  • Remind people of the need for respect in promoting constructive discussions.

Moving Forward
While some may argue that a call for civility limits the bounds of free speech, such concerns create a false equivalence between hate speech and a desire for respectful discourse. Our government in Washington must once again become the place where our leaders convene to work together, debate issues, and solve problems for the American people. In order for this to happen, we have to acknowledge that we can disagree without being disagreeable.

Now is not the time to respond with more hate or violence. As Martin Luther King Jr. so aptly stated, and Barack Obama tweeted, “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

As soon as we resort to hate speech and violence, attention is taken away from the issue. Even though frustrations may be high, we must always consider the power of our words. We must pause, control our emotions, and resume the conversation only when we feel grounded.

So, let’s make a New Year’s resolution, to work together to revive civility in our lives. Let’s agree that we will let our political leaders know we expect them to live up to our expectations of civility and respect for our country, their constituents, and our institutions. Let us be sure they know that we will hold them accountable when they do not.

As Vocational Deacons, we are charged with ‘bringing the church to the world and the world to the church’. Hopefully, we know the pulse of our congregations, and we are directed to care for all our ‘flock’ equally. This places us in a unique position to facilitate civil discourse within our parishes and the wider community. Let us continue to ‘speak truth to power’ by encouraging all to employ respect, kindness, and accuracy as we go forward into this political season.

Let this be our prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, grant us the gift of understanding. Help us to understand the feelings and desires and goals of others. At the same time, help us to understand ourselves in our actions and reactions. Widen our vision beyond our own small world to embrace with knowledge and love the worlds of others. Help us to guard the words of our mouths that may injure others. Bless us with insight, acceptance, and love that is tempered by you. Help us to understand. Amen.
 
 
Published in Diakoneo, Association of Episcopal Deacons; February 2020

What Do We Celebrate during Advent (Hope, Love, Joy Peace)?

Today we will enter into the Christian Season of Advent. ‘Advent’ comes from the Latin word meaning ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’. This is the time when Christians look forward to the birth of Jesus in that manger in Bethlehem. In the early days of the church, Advent was a time of prayer and confession. Today, Advent is more a time of preparation and expectation for the coming of the Lord.

Like many things in our world, there are symbols which represent bigger things

    • the Stars and Stripes standing for the United States,
    • fireworks for the Fourth of July,
    • turkey for Thanksgiving and
    • Santa Claus for the secular aspect of Christmas.

 
The Advent Wreath is the symbol of Advent. The circle of greenery reminds us that God is eternal. In Revelation 1:8, God says:

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty

The endless circle also reminds us of the hope we have in God, of newness, renewal and eternal life.

The candles symbolize the light of God entering the world through the birth of Jesus. The light from the candles reminds us that Jesus is the ‘light of the world’ that comes into our darkness. They also remind us that the prophet Isaiah called us to be the

light to the world (Isaiah 42:6)

as we reflect the light of God’s love and grace to others.

The Advent wreath usually sits where everyone can see it and is a constant reminder of this holy season.

The first blue candle is the Candle Of Hope, reminding us of the coming of the Messiah. And we can have hope because God is faithful and will keep the promises made to us.

The second blue candle is the Candle of Love. God kept his promise of a Savior who would be born in Bethlehem. It reminds us of our need to prepare our souls for his coming.

On the third Sunday the pink Candle of Joy is lit. This candle is sometimes known as the Mary Candle, reminding is of the Virgin Mary, remembering that she was soon to bear the Son of God in a lowly stable.

Finally on the fourth Sunday of Advent, just a few days before the birth of Christ, the final blue Candle Of Peace is lit. This candle reminds us God sent his only Son to earth to save us, because he loves us!

On Christmas Day, the Christ Candle is lit, celebrating the birth of Christ. The white candle reminds us that Jesus is the spotless lamb of God, sent to wash away our sins!

Here at In the Garden, we will be celebrating together the season of Advent by hearing a short scripture, being reminded of what we are thankful for, lighting each candle and saying a short prayer. You have been given a sheet which contains the service for each of the Sundays of Advent. I hope some of you will volunteer each Sunday to read the scripture, explain the purpose of the candle and then someone else light the appropriate candle.

Let us celebrate this season of Advent, awaiting with expectation the birth of the baby Jesus.

“So Come Let Us Adore Him” and Celebrate!

In preparing for the Advent season, I came across this poem written by Father Daniel Berrigan.

It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction— This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.

It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.

It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world.