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

Recalculating! Recalculating! Recalculating!

John 16:12-15

This is Trinity Sunday – the only Sunday in the entire church year when we talk about a doctrine rather than the teachings of Jesus. Understanding how the Trinity can be three entities and still one person is difficult for even the most knowledgeable theologian to explain. The love shared by the three persons of the Holy Trinity demonstrates the love of God in the life of the church and its people. The Father created, the Son redeemed, and the Spirit sanctifies. One God in three persons. We hear a lot about God and certainly the life and teachings of Jesus, so this week I am going to delve into the person of the Holy Spirit. Some people refer to the Holy Spirit as a woman, complementing the eternal non-gender God and the man Jesus. After the establishment of the church on Pentecost Sunday, the church’s future lies in the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

It is interesting to note that there are at least 379 references to the Holy Spirit in the Bible, always assuring the disciples – and us – that after Jesus’ death and ascension, the Holy Spirit will forever be there. There are over 983 references to Jesus in the New Testament, so we can see that the Holy Spirit is very significant in the teachings of Jesus.

In today’s scripture, Jesus is with his disciples on the last night before his death. They have had their last meal, Judas has gone to betray Him, and the disciples probably still do not understand what was about to happen. Jesus was comforting the disciples (and us) by explaining that even though He would be leaving them, they would never be alone, and that the Holy Spirit would continue to provide them wise counsel. In earlier scriptures, Jesus had told his disciples that he had taught them everything they needed to know to continue his work.

Yet, now Jesus tells his disciples,

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12).

After traveling with Him and listening to his teaching, watching his examples, and healing others for almost three years, I would imagine they feel slighted that He thought they couldn’t bear to hear any more. I know I would.

I suspect that most of us would not appreciate a sermon that began like this:

“There are things essential to our faith, but I can’t speak about them because you would not understand. They are far too complicated and way over your head.”

Really?

They would have wanted to know:

what are they? Tell us. We want to know. We can take it. We heard about so many things from you. You told us that we are to be merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers. You explained that we should not worry.

And now, even though Jesus told the disciples they are not ready to hear more, He assures them:

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears, he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:13)

Recalculating!

RECALCULATING!

RECALCULATING!

The Holy Spirit is like a GPS for our lives as Christians – someone who will guide us and correct us when we go astray. Throughout our lives, the Holy Spirit is ‘recalculating’ to keep us on the right path to the Kingdom of God.

How many times have you felt like you needed guidance but were not getting any answers to your questions or prayers? Most people are familiar with the feeling of wanting something but being unable to reach it. Most people are also acquainted with achieving a goal, taking a job, or entering a relationship only to discover that they have made a terrible mistake. When these things happen, it can be easy to feel angry or think that you should have gotten some sort of warning that this would end badly. You probably did get some warning that you were about to make a terrible mistake. You ignored the whisper in the back of your mind telling you to walk away. You thought you knew better. That little voice may have been the Holy Spirit trying to get your attention. But you ignored it. You expected the Holy Spirit to come to you in a blaze of fire, but sometimes the Holy Spirit uses subtler ways to try and reach you.

As I was preparing for this sermon, I found an article that detailed the five ways the Holy Spirit tries to get your attention. I would like to share it with you.[1]

DREAMS
If you are like the vast majority of the human race, you dream every night, but you are rarely lucky enough to remember your dreams in the morning. The few you do remember are preserved primarily as hazy impressions of color, with little or no context, or an echo of a strong emotion not knowing what in the dream made you feel ecstatic, terrified, or angry. Dreams from the Holy Spirit, however, are often different. They are deeply emotional and often involve vivid imagery. You remember them in the morning; they do not fade away at dawn. Instead, they linger in the back of your head for days, weeks, or even months after you initially had the dream. When I struggle with a sermon, I often have ‘dreams’ that give me the right words to say. In fact, at 1 am this morning, I woke up with a ‘recalculating’ from the Holy Spirit urging me to change the direction of this sermon.

Recalculating!

REPEATED SYMBOLS
The human brain loves patterns; our mind is hardwired to find patterns and meaning in everything around us. It might be a sign from the Holy Spirit if you are looking for divine guidance and keep seeing the same numbers, phrases, or animals. This is especially true if the numbers correspond to a Bible verse applicable to your situation or the animal has Christian connotations like a dove.

Recalculating!

FROM OTHERS
Sometimes the Holy Spirit uses other people to give its messages. Messages from others could come in a wide variety of ways. They almost always seem eerily accurate to your circumstances. A speaker on television might seem to be talking directly to you about your situation. A friend you have not told about your troubles yet texts you out of the blue to say they are praying for you. An encouraging song comes on the radio exactly when you need it. These deeply improbable coincidences are usually driven by the Holy Spirit, so pay attention to them.

Recalculating!

GUT FEELINGS
We have all been told that we need to trust our gut feeling or pay attention to our instincts when trying to make a decision. Everything about a situation — whether it is a new job, a new relationship, or a new apartment — may seem wonderful. Still, a nagging feeling in the back of your head or a knot in your stomach makes you hesitate. Sometimes, the Holy Spirit reaches out to you, warns you away from something, or encourages you along the path God has planned for you.

Recalculating!

CLOSED DOORS
Sometimes it seems like every door you try to walk through slams in your face. You apply for a new job only to be turned down after the final interview. You try to deepen your relationship with your significant other, only for them to walk out of your life a few weeks later. You try to start working out again only to trip and break your leg. Your GPS is ‘recalculating.’ When every door closes, it can seem like God has forgotten about you. The opposite, however, is usually true. When the Holy Spirit closes doors it is because those are not the doors you are meant to open. I have found that every time I feel disappointed when something I wanted does not happen, it is because God has a better plan if I will listen to my Holy Spirit.

Recalculating!

The Holy Spirit is always ‘recalculating’ for us, but we might not be listening. If we expect a flashing neon sign, we will not notice the quiet little suggestions left in our path. We will ignore warnings, miss opportunities, and then wonder why we are not receiving guidance. The Holy Spirit is always with us, but that does us no good if we are unwilling to listen to its voice. The Holy Spirit is our GPS ‘recalculating,’ directing us to the path to the Kingdom of God. All we have to do is listen.

But do we listen to the Holy Spirit, that rather annoying voice that keeps saying ‘recalculating’?

Not always.

But other sounds of the Holy Spirit speaking are more pleasant.

What Does the Holy Spirit Sound Like?[2]
The wind rushing through the leaves.
The birds chirping and searching for cover.
The pitter patter of rain landing on the ground.
The morning darkness giving way to nourishment for the gardens and crops.
The Spirit making its presence known.

What does the Holy Spirit sound like?
Children’s voices waking up with shouts and cheers.
A baby’s soft cries greeting the day.
A toddler yelling, “Mama and daddy!”
Siblings laughing and smiling with one another.
The Spirit making its presence known.

What does the Holy Spirit sound like?
The piping of organ music.
The ringing of bells calling us to worship.
The greeting of friends, “You are welcome here.”
The greeting of the pastor, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.”
The questions and squirming of children and babies.
The hunger cries and ready-for-a-nap tears of newborns.
The Spirit making its presence known.

What does the Holy Spirit sound like?
The reading of God’s word.
The singing of music.
The offering of prayers.
The sharing of peace.
The receiving of bread and wine.
The forgiveness of sins.
The blessing of going into the world.
The voices of children in song.
The Holy Spirit is making its presence known.

Listen to your Holy Spirit, your internal GPS ‘recalculating’ us on the right path.

It is there.

All we have to do is listen.

Amen.

Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Columbus, OH; 12 June 2022


[1]      Adapted from “Is the Holy Spirit Trying to Reach You?”BeliefNet, 9 July 2021
[2]      Pastor Kimberly Knowle-Zeller, Cole Camp, MO

“BUT”-Itis

Luke 9:51-62

We heard in this Gospel:

While Jesus and his disciples walked along a road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:59-61)

What did we just hear?

A series of ‘yes I will, but. . .’

A series of excuses why these people weren’t ready to follow Jesus right then. We don’t know if those were valid reasons, and it doesn’t matter. We know that Jesus was trying to tell us something important.

Jesus was no stranger to excuses, as witnessed by the Gospel just read. But before we examine those excuses and Jesus’ searing words in response to them, let’s consider the context and background of our text.

Luke 9:51 begins the second significant section of Luke’s Gospel account, beginning with the words:

He set his face to go to Jerusalem. (Luke 9:51)

Luke 9 marks the beginning of this “travel narrative,” as it has come to be called, and captures the story of Jesus as he travels deliberately toward Jerusalem and the fate that awaits him there. This primary section covers almost ten chapters in Luke and concludes with the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. And in this travel narrative, we have scenes where Jesus talks about the meaning of discipleship for those who would follow him to that cross on a hill.

Did you notice the first thing that happened to Jesus as he made this conscious decision? Remember, as he began his public ministry, He was rejected, only then it was in his hometown of Nazareth. Again, this time, a Samaritan village rejected him. Now he finds a similar rejection as he begins his walk to the cross. As commentator Robert Farrar Capon has written about this incident:

“Jesus, having already been rejected by the Jewish authorities because he associated with outcasts (and in particular, with Samaritans), is now rejected by the very outcasts for whom he jeopardized his respectability in the first place.” 

How sadly ironic.

Then we come to this encounter with three would-be disciples and hear excuse after excuse. As we hear Jesus’ response to each, it becomes apparent that he never attended the School of Modern Church Growth that preaches “make everyone comfortable.” Modern gurus tell us what we should do in these days of church growth: sing upbeat hymns that everyone can follow that make you happy and joyous. Never mind, it’s Lent; don’t start the worship with a confession; we wouldn’t want anyone squirming in their pews and feeling guilty. That’s how you build a church. And here is Jesus facing three potential recruits, and what does he do? Instead of accepting their excuses, he challenged their discipleship.

Jesus knew that there are times when we must move forward. His face was ‘set towards Jerusalem’; the city where he would share the last meal with his disciples; one would betray, and another would deny, and others would flee in fear and horror. Where he would die an unspeakable death to remind us just how much God loves us. Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem, and you and I are called to do the same as we follow him. And once we have heard that call, there is no turning back. There is no turning back. Not for anything. Not even those desired things which meant so much before.

So we are urged to ‘set our faces towards Jerusalem.’  Every day we must have our ears, eyes, and hearts open to answer Jesus’ call, knowing there is no turning back. Not now and not ever. 

In these three encounters, Jesus calls us to leave behind one set of obligations and duties to take on a different lifestyle. Jesus calls us to unpack and leave behind nationalism, racism, and social norms to embrace a kingdom that includes people of all races, colors, and languages from all over the world.

He invites us to leave behind selfish, narrow, localized devotion to accept a personalized love and duty for the salvation of the entire world, not just our little corner.

When Jesus set his face to Jerusalem, he turned his back on Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, on his life as a carpenter and small-town rabbi. When Jesus set his face for Jerusalem, he knew he was going to his death; he knew he was, from that very moment, walking to the cross.

Jesus invites us to go with him. He invites us and calls us to follow him to Jerusalem, to the cross. He invites us to rid ourselves of things that keep us from loving God and each other completely and passionately. Jesus invites us to drop our heavy loads, cast aside the cares and concerns that hold us back, and reject the judgments and hatreds that turn us away from God and toward the world.

Jesus invites us to empty our hands of all that so we can take up our cross and gladly follow him. When we have empty hands, we can reach out to others. We have room for love when we remove the hate from our hearts. When we take the judgment out of our eyes, we see others as God sees them, as precious children who need love and forgiveness.

Jesus wants people who will daily follow in his footsteps; those who will be with him and who mirror his compassion and love, even when such love and compassion are unpopular.

This was Jesus’ message that day: get your priorities straight. Then (and only then) will you be ready for God to rule your life.

I recently read that only 2- 4% of those who went forward during major Christian crusades like Billy Graham are still actively observing the Christian life. This is not to say that these crusades had no impact; Billy Graham touched some people, but for most of those who went forward, it didn’t last. In some situations, we might say, “Yes, Lord, I am yours,” but we’re just caught up in the moment. This was the way it was with this first man who said to him,

“I will follow you wherever you go.” (Luke 9:57)

We all have situations where our hearts desire to do something, but the flesh has a thousand reasons why we couldn’t. The three men Jesus asked to follow him suffered from the “But-First Syndrome.” The American Medical Association hasn’t recognized the “But-First Syndrome” as a disease yet, but that doesn’t mean many people are not suffering from some of its symptoms.

Suffering from ‘But-Itis’ is extremely detrimental right now – when the Supreme Court invalidated Roe v Wade, they created a national crisis for women’s healthcare. Women (your wives, sisters, daughters, nieces, grandchildren, and friends) no longer have any say about controlling their own bodies – women must go to a state where abortion is still legal or, worst case, rely on backstreet abortions. Unfortunately, the decision significantly impacts the minorities, marginalized and impoverished. . . the very ones that Jesus said we were to care love and support.

Secular and religious factions, particularly the Supreme Court, are using biblical justifications for banning abortions in all cases. This ‘righteous Christian philosophy is about as far away from the teachings of Jesus as can be. Nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of abortions.

As people of faith, we must not stand by and allow the potential maiming and death of women who find themselves in a situation where an abortion is the only viable solution. Victims should not be forced to bear the result of incest or rape; there is no regard for the mother’s health or the fetus’s viability.

We must join our voices, pens, and feet in public protest of this draconian decision by the Supreme Court. We can press our elected representatives to codify the right to control our bodies through legislation. We need to carefully assess the position on women’s rights of each candidate running for office, and we must vote and see that our friends, neighbors, and families vote in this critical mid-term election. This is the only way to change the current climate into a more loving and caring environment.

Jesus calls us to follow Him in his journey toward the Kingdom of God.

Is there a BUT that is hindering your Christian journey?

A BUT that is keeping you from following Jesus?

Have you been asked to help with Sunday School? Did you say ‘I would like to, BUT there are others better qualified?’

Do you volunteer to make phone calls to shut-ins BUT say you ‘just couldn’t fit it in’?

Do you sincerely wish to attend church regularly, BUT ‘Sunday is the only day you can sleep in’?

Have you agreed to serve on a committee BUT never went, saying ‘I just can’t get there from work on time’?

Have you been asked to write letters to your representatives BUT saying you ‘never have time?’

Have you been asked to participate in a protest march BUT, saying ‘the weather is too hot’?

Following Jesus is not easy; it means we have to re-organize our lives. We must change our priorities and forego some things, which is how Jesus calls us to follow.

Can you hear Christ calling you now? Saying in the still quiet of your heart,

“Drop everything holding you back and follow, follow me to Jerusalem, follow me to Love.”

We all know what it means to live life by excuse. What teacher hasn’t heard somewhere in their career: “The dog ate my paper”? What wife hasn’t listened to the myriad of reasons their husbands can concoct why the ‘honey-do’ list hasn’t even been started? What husband hasn’t heard the words: “But it was on sale”? And what parent hasn’t known the frustration of hearing from that teen: “I’ll do it later; I promise”?

Excuses — we know them; we use them. They are explanations, often rationalizations, for our behavior or lack thereof. Even in the business world, where people are paid to do tasks, excuses are a dime a dozen. Business consultant James M. Bleech surveyed over 100 executives to find out what excuses they hear the most from their employees. Heading the list was, predictably: “It’s not my fault.” A close second was: “It was someone else’s fault.”[1]

Pastor Dale Barrick got so sick and tired of all the excuses he heard about why people don’t attend church regularly that he instituted a “No-Excuse Sunday.”   Would you like to listen to what was included on such a Sunday?

  • How about cots for those who want to sleep in;
  • blankets for those who found the sanctuary too cold;
  • fans for those who found the sanctuary too warm;
  • sand for those who preferred the beach;
  • television sets for persons who prefer services on the screen;
  • and poinsettias and lilies for those accustomed to entering the church only on Christmas and Easter.

But the ultimate life by excuse must be the guy who sued God. Did you read about this court case recently? Unable to take responsibility for his life and actions, a 63-year-old Pennsylvania man named God as a defendant in a lawsuit that blamed God for failing to bring him justice in a thirty-year battle against his former employer, USX Corporation, which fired him in 1968. The man also alleged that God did not answer his requests to return him to his youth and grant him the guitar-playing skills of famous guitarists. The case was eventually thrown out of the U.S. District Court in Syracuse, New York.[2] 

Life by excuse.

We’ve heard it;

we’ve seen it;

we know it.

Do we want to follow Jesus? It is a journey. The early Christians were known and called “people of the way.” It is still valid. It is a way — of living, of life, of commitment, of challenge, but also grace, hope, and power. The call of Jesus is a call to follow  –

  • not when it’s convenient,
  • not when all our tasks and lists are checked off,
  • not when we feel like it –

but to follow him into the world where we become His hands and feet for compassion, his voice for justice and mercy, his arms for reconciliation, his heart for the hurting, the haunted, the hungry, the weak, the vulnerable.

Do you see? Jesus’ call to each of us is to use the gifts he gives us in service to his name for the world his father created. To do that is to be faithful and to follow. To do otherwise is to be a wannabe who hasn’t counted the cost of being a disciple.

What do we say to the call to follow this Jesus?

What will we say the next time the call goes forth from Christ’s Church that hands are needed for a task?

What will we say when we read that Christ’s body in its corporate form needs willing hearts and minds to serve?

What will we say when asked to use Christ’s blessings and return that blessing in service? What will we say?

Will it be life by excuse, which is no life at all?

Or will it be service born of gratitude for all God has given us?

This call of Jesus is still a challenge today. He needs willing disciples to carry on the mission of proclaiming God’s Kingdom and witnessing through their lives.

What will you say when you hear that call?

Will it be life as an excuse

or life as service?

It’s your call!

Amen.

 

Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Columbus, OH; 26 June 2022


[1]      Craig Brian Larson, ed., Contemporary Illustrations for Preachers, Teachers, & Writers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1996) p. 64

[2]      Paul Bascom Guffin, “Bloopers That Gnash the Teeth,” The Joyful Noiseletter, Vol. 14, No. 7 (Portage, Michigan: Fellowship of Merry Christians, 1999) p. 2

Recalculating! Recalculating! Recalculating!

John 16:12-15

This is Trinity Sunday – the only Sunday in the entire church year when we talk about a doctrine rather than the teachings of Jesus. Understanding how the Trinity can be three entities and still one person is difficult for even the most knowledgeable theologian to explain. The love shared by the three persons of the Holy Trinity demonstrates the love of God in the life of the church and its people. The Father created, the Son redeemed, and the Spirit sanctifies. One God in three persons. We hear a lot about God and certainly the life and teachings of Jesus, so this week I am going to delve into the person of the Holy Spirit. Some people refer to the Holy Spirit as a woman, complementing the eternal nongender God and the man Jesus. After the establishment of the church on Pentecost Sunday, the church’s future lies in the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

It is interesting to note that there are at least 379 references to the Holy Spirit in the Bible, always assuring the disciples – and us – that after Jesus’ death and ascension, the Holy Spirit will forever be there. There are over 983 references to Jesus in the New Testament, so we can see that the Holy Spirit is very significant in the teachings of Jesus.

In today’s scripture, Jesus is with his disciples on the last night before his death. They have had their last meal, Judas has gone to betray Him, and the disciples probably still do not understand what was about to happen. Jesus was comforting the disciples (and us) by explaining that even though He would be leaving them, they would never be alone, and that the Holy Spirit would continue to provide them wise counsel. In earlier scriptures, Jesus had told his disciples that he had taught them everything they needed to know to continue his work.

Yet, now Jesus tells his disciples,

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12).

After traveling with Him and listening to his teaching, watching his examples, and healing others for almost three years, I would imagine they feel slighted that He thought they couldn’t bear to hear any more. I know I would.

I suspect that most of us would not appreciate a sermon that began like this:

“There are things essential to our faith, but I can’t speak about them because you would not understand. They are far too complicated and way over your head.”

Really?

They would have wanted to know: what are they? Tell us. We want to know. We can take it. We heard about so many things from you. You told us that we are to be merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers. You explained that we should not worry.

And now, even though Jesus told the disciples they are not ready to hear more, He assures them:

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears, he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:13)

Recalculating!

     RECALCULATING!

          RECALCULATING!

The Holy Spirit is like a GPS for our lives as Christians – someone who will guide us and correct us when we go astray. Throughout our lives, the Holy Spirit is ‘recalculating’ to keep us on the right path to the Kingdom of God.

How many times have you felt like you needed guidance but were not getting any answers to your questions or prayers? Most people are familiar with the feeling of wanting something but being unable to reach it. Most people are also acquainted with achieving a goal, taking a job, or entering a relationship only to discover that they have made a terrible mistake. When these things happen, it can be easy to feel angry or think that you should have gotten some sort of warning that this would end badly. You probably did get some warning that you were about to make a terrible mistake. You ignored the whisper in the back of your mind telling you to walk away. You thought you knew better. That little voice may have been the Holy Spirit trying to get your attention. But you ignored it. You expected the Holy Spirit to come to you in a blaze of fire, but sometimes the Holy Spirit uses subtler ways to try and reach you.

As I was preparing for this sermon, I found an article that detailed the five ways the Holy Spirit tries to get your attention. I would like to share it with you.[1]

  • DREAMS
    If you are like the vast majority of the human race, you dream every night, but you are rarely lucky enough to remember your dreams in the morning. The few you do remember are preserved primarily as hazy impressions of color, with little or no context, or an echo of a strong emotion not knowing what in the dream made you feel ecstatic, terrified, or angry. Dreams from the Holy Spirit, however, are often different. They are deeply emotional and often involve vivid imagery. You remember them in the morning; they do not fade away at dawn. Instead, they linger in the back of your head for days, weeks, or even months after you initially had the dream. When I struggle with a sermon, I often have ‘dreams’ that give me the right words to say. In fact, at 1 am this morning, I woke up with a ‘recalculating’ from the Holy Spirit urging me to change the direction of this sermon.

Recalculating!

  • REPEATED SYMBOLS.
    The human brain loves patterns; our mind is hardwired to find patterns and meaning in everything around us. It might be a sign from the Holy Spirit if you are looking for divine guidance and keep seeing the same numbers, phrases, or animals. This is especially true if the numbers correspond to a Bible verse applicable to your situation or the animal has Christian connotations like a dove.

Recalculating!

  • FROM OTHERS
    Sometimes the Holy Spirit uses other people to give its messages. Messages from others could come in a wide variety of ways. They almost always seem eerily accurate to your circumstances. A speaker on television might seem to be talking directly to you about your situation. A friend you have not told about your troubles yet texts you out of the blue to say they are praying for you. An encouraging song comes on the radio exactly when you need it. These deeply improbable coincidences are usually driven by the Holy Spirit, so pay attention to them.

Recalculating!

  • GUT FEELINGS
    We have all been told that we need to trust our gut feeling or pay attention to our instincts when trying to make a decision. Everything about a situation — whether it is a new job, a new relationship, or a new apartment — may seem wonderful. Still, a nagging feeling in the back of your head or a knot in your stomach makes you hesitate. Sometimes, the Holy Spirit reaches out to you, warns you away from something, or encourages you along the path God has planned for you.

Recalculating!

  • CLOSED DOORS
    Sometimes it seems like every door you try to walk through slams in your face. You apply for a new job only to be turned down after the final interview. You try to deepen your relationship with your significant other, only for them to walk out of your life a few weeks later. You try to start working out again only to trip and break your leg. Your GPS is ‘recalculating.’ When every door closes, it can seem like God has forgotten about you. The opposite, however, is usually true. When the Holy Spirit closes doors it is because those are not the doors you are meant to open. I have found that every time I feel disappointed when something I wanted does not happen, it is because God has a better plan if I will listen to my Holy Spirit.

Recalculating!

The Holy Spirit is always ‘recalculating’ for us, but we might not be listening. If we expect a flashing neon sign, we will not notice the quiet little suggestions left in our path. We will ignore warnings, miss opportunities, and then wonder why we are not receiving guidance.

The Holy Spirit is always with us, but that does us no good if we are unwilling to listen to its voice. The Holy Spirit is our GPS ‘recalculating,’ directing us to the path to the Kingdom of God. All we have to do is listen.

But do we listen to the Holy Spirit, that rather annoying voice that keeps saying ‘recalculating’?

Not always.
 
But other sounds of the Holy Spirit speaking are more pleasant.

What Does the Holy Spirit Sound Like?
The wind rushing through the leaves.
The birds chirping and searching for cover.
The pitter-patter of rain landing on the ground.
The morning darkness giving way to nourishment for the gardens and crops.
The Spirit making its presence known.

What does the Holy Spirit sound like?
Children’s voices waking up with shouts and cheers.
A baby’s soft cries greeting the day.
A toddler yelling, “Mama and daddy!”
Siblings laughing and smiling with one another.
The Spirit making its presence known.

What does the Holy Spirit sound like?
The piping of organ music.
The ringing of bells calling us to worship.
The greeting of friends, “You are welcome here.”
The greeting of the pastor, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the
communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.”
The questions and squirming of children and babies.
The hunger cries and ready-for-a-nap tears of newborns.
The Spirit making its presence known.

What does the Holy Spirit sound like?
The reading of God’s word.
The singing of music.
The offering of prayers.
The sharing of peace. 

The receiving of bread and wine.
The forgiveness of sins.
The blessing of going into the world.
The voices of children in song.
The Holy Spirit is making its presence known.[2]

Listen to your Holy Spirit, your internal GPS ‘recalculating’ us on the right path. It is there.

All we have to do is listen.

Amen.

[1]  Adapted from “Is the Holy Spirit Trying to Reach  You?”BeliefNet, 9 July 2021
[2]  Pastor Kimberly Knowle-Zeller, Cole Camp, MO


Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Columbus, OH; 12 June 2022

UNITY! Will We EVER Have It?

John 17:20-26

God?!!???
When will the
USA
countdown
Enough
Wisps of childhood
Enough gasps of Black People
Enough cries of Brown People
Enough endangerment of white people
For thoughts to turn into flipped tables?
And prayers to turn into peace beyond understanding?
How Long Lord?
I’m tired of this prayer, prayed on behalf of those who no longer pray
Melt our hearts God, move us beyond what we are—to doing what we need to do to bring peace.
No more thoughts and prayers—policies and protests.
Times 21.
Screw it. Times 14,000
In the name of Jesus Christ. We pray.
Amen[1]

That was a prayer created by Pastor Katy Stenta, another clergy who is as disgusted as I am about the recent massacre in Uvalde, Texas. Since 1968, there have been 1,516, people killed by guns on American soil. Gun violence kills an average of 168 people every two days!  As of today, there have been 202 mass murder events in 2022 (and May is not over!), 30 school shootings, with 221 victims and 790 wounded.

WHEN IS THIS GOING TO STOP!?!?!?!?

But as I ask, ‘when will it end’, I await with trepidation where it will be next –and how soon – and how many more – and how many more innocent lives will be taken.’ Thoughts and prayers’ don’t seem to be working.

God forgive us and have mercy.

Once again (or should I say ‘yet’), I had to change the whole scope of my sermon because of current events. How many times are preachers going to have to address the carnage of mass murders and domestic terrorism?

  • When are we going to live in a country that loves it children more than its guns?
  • When will we able to stop teaching our students how to be safe during an active shooter situation?
  • When are we going to act like people of God and stop these senseless killings?
  • When are we going to remove the assault weapons that allow this terrorism?
  • When are we going to hold our elected representatives accountable to enact legislation desired by the majority of Americans, including gun owners?
  • When will our politicians stop being corrupted by special interests and their money?
  • When are we going to exercise our right to vote for people who will remove the weapons of mass destruction?
  • When will those who have not spoken out begin to have a voice?
  • When are we going to pay attention to signs of primarily homegrown young white males that telegraph their intent to commit these atrocities?

When?

WHEN?

WHEN?

On this Memorial Day weekend, instead of honoring those who fought and gave the ultimate sacrifice, we are caught up in a continuing circle of mass murders. We are too shocked to be able to give those who died in wars the respect they deserve.

All Powerful God,
We honor today those men and women—
Our sons and daughters,
Husbands and wives,
Fathers, brothers, sisters, mothers—
Who have laid down their life for their country.
Whether weary or emboldened, quiet or defiant, Vulnerable or ready when You called them home,
Their sacrifice is too humbling for words,
except these uttered in prayer.
Loving Lord, bless them forever in Your eternal peace.
Let the sounds of strife, the cries of battle, the wounds of war
be calmed for all eternity in Your loving and endless grace.
Let these great warriors find rest at last,
Ever reminded that we who are left behind 
Cherish their Spirit, honor their commitment,
send them our love, and will never forget the service that they gave.

Let us take a moment of silence to remember and honor those who died to ensure the freedom we enjoy.

This week’s scripture is the calling from Jesus for all peoples to live in unity. . . with people of faith, people who have no organized faith, for

EVERYONE in the world.

Psalm 133:1 sums it up:

How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!

With unity, there is room for diversity of beliefs and doctrines. There can be unity in diversity, and diversity in unity. Although differences of beliefs, doctrine, interpretation, and opinion may be held and expressed among people, they should be expressed in love and fellowship with those who may differ. This is the essence of true Christianity, based in Christ, through His love.

We are all gifted differently. God did that on purpose; He wants us to share our gifts with each other. He wants us to concentrate on our own gifts and learn to use them to the fullest. Through these differences, we teach each other. If we all had the same gifts, to the same extent as everyone else did, would be like everyone in the world being a doctor. Who would fix cars? Who would work in stores? We need to embrace differences in people!

One of the reasons for unity Is to be a witness to the world of the love of God. We all know how hard it is to love some people; so when love is exhibited by working together in the spirit of unity, it shows the Love of God in a way that is unmistakable.

In John 13:31, Jesus commands us:

we are to love one another.

But we have an environment in the United States where hatred, bigotry, divisiveness, and fear abounds! People deliberately slander, attack and murder those who are different. People plot and plan and commit atrocities under misguided beliefs that we must cleanse this nation of ‘the others’. And there seems to be no inclination to stop this terrorism!

Jesus said to us:

I am one with them, and you are one with me, so that they may become completely one. (John 17:23)

Just as in all people, we have many different ethnic backgrounds, races, social and economic classes, political slants, different talents, abilities, and personalities. We are diverse, yet we are all unified under our faith. What we have in common is so much greater than all those differences. What we share is of such importance to each of us, that we are willing and able to come together as one. We are all children of the Kingdom of God.

We share a common relationship; we share a common focus of worship- we share a common mission – joining together for the purpose of encouraging and uplifting one another and spreading the gospel to everyone we know.

Those are the things that unify us. Those are the things that matter the most. Those are the things that bring us together and cause us to lay aside all the differences.

When the people of God keep their focus, we can accomplish that unity. It’s when we lose sight of those commonalities that we begin to become dis-unified. When we let personality differences, personal preferences, differences in style, and petty details dominate our attention, we lose sight of the big picture – the love of God.

Jesus called us all to work together – yes, each of us has different jobs and positions. But yet, we are all to contribute to the spreading of the Gospel. It is not the bishop’s job or the priests or the deacons – it is about all of us working together, doing our part. We are too fragmented, so concerned about our own agenda, our own desires, our own particular feelings about ‘the others’. What is missing is the most important point:

UNITY

Unity – coming together to show the love of God to the world around us.

Jesus assured us that

I am one with them, and you are one with me, so that they may become completely one. Then this world’s people will know that you sent me. They will know that you love my followers as much as you love me. (John 17:23)

We need each other. (We actually need each other much more than we even realize!) Some have one gift, …while others do-not. When we come together in the spirit of unity showing the Love of God, that is greater than all the programs and plans man can ever put together.

God has called The Body of Christ to a life of radical obedience, service to the lost, broken and needy of this world. In doing this, we fulfill the scripture of becoming completely one

I am one with them, and you are one with me, so that they may become completely one. (John 17:23)

This is a radical idea – it’s life changing. It requires obedience – to be committed. But it’s this obedience that can transform this world through the expression of unity. We will make a radical difference in the lives of our family, and the families around us.

So, today the choice is up to you: continue to be just another Christian living life as he or she see fit, relying on God’s grace. Or join the revolution; find your place and make a difference. Let God show you where He wants you- He has given us the tools that we need. God will put us together with others. We will fit in nicely where He places us. We are like a piece in a puzzle; we fit together perfectly with others in the Body of Christ. Other pieces will move in around us and something beautiful will be the result. Be open to what God would have you do.

How do we strive to attain this unity?

I.       Unity Requires Submission

The first step to unity is submission.

For most-people, when we hear this-word, the hair on the back-of-our-neck stands-up; we feel the muscles across our shoulders tense-up; our jaw clenches. Submit? No Way!

But, without submission, unity will not happen!

Why in the world should we ‘submit’ to one another? First, Scripture tells us to

“Submit-to one another out of reverence to Christ.” (Ephesians 5.21)

Every person of faith is guided by the Holy Spirit. We are accepting, receiving the living Spirit of God. Jesus comes to us, and She dwells within us. What that means is: it affects how we respond to one another. When we are called to submit to one another, we are actually submitting to the Christ dwelling in our brothers, and our sisters!

I don’t know about you, but that is revolutionary to me! It changes everything! It changes how I look at you; it changes how I feel about submitting. It changes my attitude because it’s not you and your DNA and your quirkiness and your strangeness that I’m submitting to; it’s the Christ dwelling within you, who has redeemed you, who calls you His beloved-child – just-like He calls me a beloved-child!

The second reason we submit to one another is because each-believer has been gifted by God. No one is exempt. No one is left out. No one is gift-less.

We are told by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6:

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.”

What this means is that no one has everything it takes to do the work of the Kingdom of God. We need each other. Unity requires submission. And we submit because others have tools and gifts that we don’t have. No one can be top dog on everything. We are just as indispensable as someone else with a different gift. Submission is an act of confession and an act of faith: It is confession, in-that we confess our own limitations; and an act-of-faith in that we trust that God is dwelling in and working through others in such a way that we need to cooperate with them so that the purposes of God are realized!

II.      Unity Requires Sacrifice

Not only are we to submit to one another out of reverence to Christ (who dwells in those that we submit to), but we are also to sacrifice for one another. Unity in the church family requires sacrifice.

I am always amazed at how so much of life is woven together by common themes. Unity is one of those themes. In the Old Testament, the central confession for ancient Israel was this:

Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

In the New Testament, Jesus affirms that

the Father and I are One. (John 10:30)

Unity is a common theme throughout Scripture. Is it any wonder that one of the key for unity, one of the essential ingredients is sacrifice?

Sacrifice leads to unity when we place our personal preferences, our individual dreams, sometimes our preferred way of doing things aside. Unity will not be realized when we are unwilling to make personal sacrifices. To make sacrifices is a sign that we recognize: “it’s not about me!” It is all about God.

Jesus was all about sacrifice; His entire life was sacrifice. Jesus sacrificed so much for us – why in the world would we not want to make personal sacrifices for the sake of others!? Why wouldn’t the body of Christ, the church, the family of God, why wouldn’t we see that for us to be unified, we must make sacrifices?

III.    Unity Requires Purpose

Purpose… Mission… God’s plans… If we aren’t centered on God’s purposes, we will not be unified. We will be divided, fractured, and split by competing interests and conflicting dreams.

Unity requires purpose. All kinds of goals and aims can unite us:

United by a desire for fun.
United by a fear of outsiders.
United by common hobbies.

But, earthly purposes will never unite us in the way God wants His people to be united. Jesus taught us to pray

“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10)

for a reason. It is all about discerning the will of God, and seeking the will of God, and doing the will of God.

This is our purpose! Unity requires purpose, but that purpose must be rooted in and derived from God’s purposes and plans.

We can be unified in seeking God’s will, but our unity will not be healthy if we’re not sacrificial and submissive toward one another. We can be sacrificial and submissive toward one another, but miss the mark if we’re not also seeking the purposes of God.

Unity is God’s desire for us. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 spells it out for us:

“Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him – a threefold cord is not quickly broken

In a Peanuts cartoon, Lucy demands that Linus change the channel on the TV, threatening him with her fist if he won’t do it, but Linus is reluctant to do so: “What makes you think you can walk right in here and take over?” Lucy holds up her fist and opens her hand: “These five fingers. Individually, they’re nothing, but when I curl them together like this into a single unit, they form a terrible weapon.” Linus, now visibly shaken, asks, “Which channel do you want?”

There is nothing more natural than to separate from one another. As soon as Adam and Eve rebelled, they immediately fell apart from one another. The same strife characterized their children, as their first-born son murdered his brother. This is the testimony of fallen people – war, bitterness, strife, resentment, anger, hatred, murder, animosity, offense, slander, bickering, complaints, and rivalry.

There are several things that each of us can do to create unity in our families, our church, and our nation.

1.   Be a grower. Some say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. While that might be true in human relationships, absence makes the heart wander in our relationship with God. And when we wander, we often go to war with others. If you find yourself out of sync with someone, ask yourself an honest question: “Am I walking with Christ?” Unity will only come when we allow Christ to live through us.

2.   Be a peacemaker. Instead of judging, gossiping, or slandering others, search for specific ways that you can be a peacemaker. Proverbs 6:19 says that the Lord finds detestable

“a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.”

Stop being abrasive and cut others some slack. It’s like the Chinese proverb that says, “Do not remove a fly from your friend’s forehead with a hatchet.” Watch your words. And when you hear someone speaking ill of another, speak the truth in love.

The basic principle is whether another has wronged you, or you’ve been the one who has done wrong, as difficult as it is, we must go and meet face-to-face and seek reconciliation (Matthew 5:23-24; 18:15-17). If someone has a grudge against you, do what you can to make it right. And if you have something against someone, go and meet with them.

  • Admit that you’ve been wrong (Both attitudes and actions).
  • Address everyone involved (All those whom you affected)
  • Avoid if, but, and maybe (Do not try to excuse your wrongs)
  • Acknowledge the hurt (Express sorrow for hurting someone)
  • Accept the consequences (Such as making restitution)
  • Alter your behavior (Change your attitudes and actions)
  • Ask for forgiveness (Request release from the result of the action)

 “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3)

What is one thing you can do this week to keep the unity of the Spirit? Have you made every effort in that relationship you’re thinking about right now, or have you just made a lazy attempt?

3.   Be a forgiver. Be like the young child who was overheard reciting the prayer given to the disciples:

“And forgive us our trash passes, as we forgive those who have passed trash against us.”

Are you passing trash around this morning? Get rid of it before it starts to stink!

4.   Be a lover. Christ calls us to love one another in John 13:34:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another”

Love is not an option; it’s a command. And when we do love, people will notice and know that we’re followers of the one who loves unconditionally. Is there anyone you do not love right now? Anyone you’re avoiding? Giving the cold shoulder to? Every great awakening, large or small, throughout the whole course of Christian history, has invariably begun by a breaking down of barriers between Christians first.

5.   Be a server. One of the best ways to have a unity-centered life is to be involved in serving. We need to equip people to become growing and faithful followers. But it doesn’t end there. As preparing and serving take place, notice what happens next in Ephesians 4:13:

“…until we all reach unity in the faith…”

One of the best ways to build unity is to serve side-by-side with others.

6.   Be a pray-er. Pray that the world will embrace unity. The Book of Common Prayer contains a prayer for unity:[2]

Almighty God, whose Blessed Son before his passion prayed for his disciples that they might be one, as you and he are one: Grant that your Church, being bound together in love and obedience to you, may be united in one body by the one Spirit,

We need to be a people who are humble and trustworthy so that other believers can feel safe coming to us with what they’re struggling with so that we can pray with them and help them overcome. In the sweet fellowship of the Spirit, there is love and trust, accountability and confession, healing and restoration, and renewed strength and growth. When Christ is at the center of this fellowship, it’s the deepest, most meaningful fellowship. This is the value of coming together and loving one another, working with one another, and helping one another grow and mature in faith. Our spiritual fellowship accomplishes the will and purpose of Christ.

The Church itself is culpability for the ‘separated-ness’. We’re living in a world seething with cruelty — not only with abuse scandals, but also with mass shootings, political barbarism and the atrocities in Ukraine. How much will continual exposure to 24-hour news lead to people separating themselves more from others? Where will the forces of re-unification come from? Apparently not from our religious elites. Just look at the exposure of the abuse within the Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist church hierarchies.

Churches, whether as a result of Covid, or because they are viewed by many as irrelevant, have loss the sense that they are centers of community, therefore, unity. They used to be the place that people congregated, ate, and worked together for the betterment of themselves and their community. Post-Covid, if we can say that, the religious institutions seem to have chose to stay in their silos, rather than go out into the world.

However, here is a small glimmer, However small, of hope:  Pope Francis, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, and Church of Scotland Moderator Iaian Green Shields will be traveling together to South Sudan on a “Mission of Peace” in July. I cannot imagine Pope Pius V, John Knox, and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer journeying anywhere together. Since the civil war in Sudan ended, Sudan became two different countries, North and South Sudan, separated by huge disparities in religion and poverty.

Pope Francis will go with the message, “I am asking you as a brother to stay in peace. I am asking you with my heart, let us go forward”. . . go forward in unity. They are risking their personal safety to travel to a dangerous place to promote peace and reconciliation … and unity. We pray that their united effort will ease the life of those people, and be an example for the rest of the world of working in unity.

Let us pray:

“Abba God, you are in me, and I am in you; may they also be in us, I in them and you in me, 

that they may become completely one.” (John 17:21, 23)

Amen.

 

Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Columbus, OH; 9 May 2022


[1]      Pastor Katy Stenta
[2]      The Book of Common Prayer, Collect for Unity, pg 255

  •  

 

AS I LOVED YOU

John 13:34-35

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (John 13:34-35)

In this scripture, the command to love one another is like a candle in this dark and brutal world, in danger of being blown out by current events. We are now in the fifth week of the Easter Season, knowing the good news that Jesus has conquered death and sin.

But we lose track of the joy by the wear and tear of daily duties and disappointments: the senseless war in Ukraine initiated by a megalomaniac tyrant, the homegrown 18-year old avowed ‘white supremacist anti-semite’ clothed in military combat gear who intentionally drove to Buffalo to kill ‘black’ people, forest fires in New Mexico destroying small villages, and the proposed removal of a woman’s right to control her own body. Our world is so fraught with events that disrupt our thoughts away from the promise of the Easter Season.

Today is not so different from the setting of this scripture.

We back up a little in time to when Jesus was with His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper, and Judas slinked off to bring the authorities to seize Him. Jesus had been teaching his disciples how to continue without Him once He left the earth.

Jesus was talking to the disciples, foretelling his death and ascension. He had spent the last three years preaching and teaching and training His disciples to carry on His work. And then, on His last time together with them, He gave them (and us) a new commandment in John 13:34:

that you’re to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

Of all His teachings, this is the most important; it eclipses all the other words written in the Bible – one of the better-known lines of scriptures and one of the most challenging for us to practice.

Jesus said

“love one another”. . .

•    not only those that you love
•    or that love you
•    or are family
•    or are friends
•    or are your neighbors.

Jesus commands us to love

EVERYONE!!!

This radical love rejects all those principles that people typically hold dear. Radical in that it is for all people on the earth:

    • everyone we know,
    • those we don’t know,
    • those of different cultures and ethnicity,
    • those we perceive as bad or evil,
    • those who commit crimes against others,
    • those whose religions we do not understand,
    • those we view as ‘despicable’ or homeless or derelict,
    • those of different political persuasions.

Jesus is commanding us to practice this kind of radical love. Notice the scripture says

should love one another.”

Notice it doesn’t say ‘it would be nice’ or ‘I would like you to’ – it is a commandment. Words have meaning, ‘should’ is not optional.

This love Jesus talks about isn’t romantic, nor is it simply being nice, only loving those who love you back.

Remember, when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, Judas was there and had his feet washed too. The man who would turn Him over to the authorities to be tried, found guilty, and crucified – He even showed his love for Judas as he washed HIS feet.

It is easy for us to love those close to us, but Jesus did more than love His friends – He loved HIS ENEMIES!!

He even forgave those who crucified Him!

And his death showed just how much God loved the world by dying for those who did not love him. This kind of love is difficult because it is self-sacrificing, requiring us to step out of ourselves and our own biases and prejudices. It means putting the good of the other first, even when it hurts or is uncomfortable.

There is a Celtic saying:

Jesus didn’t die for us so that we could continue treating people the way people treated Him.

How do we love as Jesus loved?

The love of Jesus is so strange, absent today, unknown or felt by people in this cruel world.

But that is the love that Jesus meant – love that leads to forgiveness.

Do we show that love wherever we are today?

Do we even show it to our family when there are fights?

Do we show it in our workplace?

Do we show it to the stranger?

Loving one another was not Jesus’ suggestion! It was His command!

So, we need to let that kind of love be the center of our lives.

But what is that love?

Radical love has good manners, does not take advantage of people, it’s not irritable. Radical love does not keep account of hurts. When we are hurt, we don’t hold that pain in our memory; we don’t dwell on it and let it fester.

In our lifetime, we’ll have lots of opportunities to suffer hurt. And people, including Christians, do all kinds of strange and terrible things to each other.

    • People will lie to you.
    • Somebody that you trust will gossip about you. The gossip might not be accurate, but it spreads like wildfire, and you can’t stop it.
    • A mother-in-law, an affair might interfere in your marriage.
    • A roommate or a spouse might say something in anger that cuts so deep it seems the wound will never heal.
    • Politicians and people who are supposed to be governing in our best interest may enact legislation that takes away liberties from specific targeted groups of their constituents.

All of us have many opportunities every day to either turn that hurt into hatred or extend love to the persons who hurt us.

We will have many chances in our lives to deal with people who hurt us. You might be thinking of someone like that right now. There are many opportunities in our lives to encounter people who may be adversarial or enemies of who we are or how we live. It is challenging to deal with these people in love, especially when we see the harm and destruction they perpetrate on those they target. But we need to rise above the hatred and try to approach those people with love.

The Apostle Paul says that we won’t keep remembering the hurt when someone hurts us if we express God’s love. So the question is:

How do you get that love into your life?

What can you do to remove the hatred and replace it with love?

Let me suggest three steps that can help us express the radical love of Jesus.

Step 1 – Release past hurts.
One thing we can do to practice the kind of love where we do not keep in our hearts and minds the hurts done to us. We go over things to remember them. If we don’t go over them, we forget them. We can decide we are not going to bring up old hurts. Living in the past only makes us bitter and doesn’t allow us to move on into the future.

Step 2 – Let God handle vengeance.
A second thing you can do is turn over to God anything that hurts you. If there is vengeance to be done, it’s God’s business. In Romans 12, Paul wrote,

Payback to no man evil for evil. (Romans 12:17)

Live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge. Let God do it. Remember, God said:

It is mine to avenge. I will repay. (Romans 12:19)

Let God take any action to correct the wrong. Turn it over to him. We find this is the hardest thing to do when we have been deeply wounded. But vengeance is not ours to take.

Step 3 – Remember how God forgave us.
A final thing we can do to gain this kind of forgiving love for others is to remember how God loves us, warts and all. God assures us in Hebrews 8:12:

I will forgive your wickedness, and I will remember your sins no more.

Some of us have a hard time accepting that God forgives us; we may feel that God is against us – that God’s going to dredge up all the stuff from our past.

But He is NOT.

When God says we are forgiven, we are forgiven.

And if we’re forgiven, it’s easier to be forgiving of others and love them. In our love for others, we reflect the love of God. Jesus told us:

everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another (John 13:35)

It is not easy – no one ever said it would be. But, remember,

“love one another”

was NOT a suggestion from Jesus, but a COMMANDMENT.

If He could forgive and love those who persecuted and crucified Him, we can surely love and forgive those who have done much less to us.

As he hung on the cross, Jesus prayed for the very people killing Him. With almost His last breath, He said:

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)

We will never be able to love as Jesus did, but we can use his example to do our best. If He can love unconditionally, then we must

Love one another (John 13:34)

I saw this from a clergy friend on Facebook – it practically sums it up:

The “new” commandment to love each other as Jesus loves is earthshaking, so earthshaking it can roll the stone from every tomb.

How wonderful is that – an assurance of love and being members of the eternal Kingdom of God.

Let us pray for guidance and strength:

Beloved,
may your love flow through me,
your heart beat in mine,
your Spirit breathe in me,
that I may love as you have loved me:
entering my life with gentleness,
inviting me into your grace,
giving me a place of belonging in this amazing world,
forgiving me entirely, healing me,
calling forth the divine in me,
finding delight in me,
laying down your life for me.

May I love as you have loved me
and live gently, love deeply,
forgive freely, give generously,
bless boldly, and offer myself humbly,
that, by your grace,
you will live fully in me.[1]

Amen.

Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Columbus, OH; 15 May 2022


[1]   Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes, Unfolding Light

Do You Know We Can Doubt Away, With God’s Blessing?

John 20:19-31

Do You Know We Can Doubt Away, With God’s Blessing?

Think about this for a minute: We Can Doubt Away, With God’s Blessing!

This first Sunday after Easter in the Protestant religion is called ‘Low Sunday’, maybe because of the feeling of coming down from the mountaintop experience of Easter, or it’s the slump clergy feel as we look out and see more empty seats than were there last week. To the Roman Catholic tradition, it is called ‘Divine Mercy Sunday’ – we hear why in this week’s scripture reading.

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

You may be interested in knowing that the first three gospels contain absolutely nothing 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. In John’s Gospel, he emerges as a distinct personality, but even then, there are only 155 words about him.

Bishop John Shelby Spong, in his book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, stated that the writer of John created Thomas as a metaphor with a unique personality of ‘doubting.’ His story has entered the vocabulary of the world and is even used in everyday conversation. People who doubt or question the status quo are called “Doubting Thomases.”[2] 

In the reading, Jesus admonished Thomas:

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

Jesus told Thomas to believe and accept His resurrection as actual – 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 a strong religious belief in God or certain doctrines, based on spiritual acceptance, rather than proof.’

Jesus goes on to tell Thomas: 

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

Not only Christians but all human beings live every day by faith.

  • We go to sleep assuming faith that we will wake up.
  • We kiss our loved ones goodbye with faith that we will see them again.
  • We drive to the grocery store with 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 happens. These are all elements of ‘having faith.’ 

But does faith mean we do not doubt?

No, indeed, faith does not preclude doubt. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we are troubled from time to time with doubts if what we’ve been taught is true. Even Saint 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 sure about something, especially about how good or valid it is.’

Doubt is one of God’s most effective tools for producing mighty men and women of faith.

The writer, Frederick Buechner, put it this way,

“If you don’t have doubts you’re either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants-in-the-pants of faith; they keep faith alive and moving.”   

I submit that being a “Doubting Thomas” and questioning life, especially its significant events or problems, is not bad. 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 move to a more purposeful life and a closer relationship with God. 

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

Jesus told Thomas that those: 

who believe even if they have not seen are blessed. (John 20:29)

Certain Christian doctrines and biblical stories seem illogical and flawed; they ignore all reason and go against much of what we now know for sure, through science and experience.

So, what if we find ourselves with serious doubts. What should we do? 

    • All people, sometime during our lives, have doubts, questions, and skepticism. We can accept that doubt is normal and healthy. That is the way that God made us: to ask questions, inquire, think, to sort things out.
    • Doubts, questions, and skepticism often lead to greater faith. Centuries ago, Copernicus doubted that the earth was the center of the universe. Christians of his era used and quoted the Bible to prove that the earth was the center of the universe. Copernicus doubted the validity of those peoples’ interpretations. His challenging their interpretation of the Bible led him to a larger and deeper understanding of our place in the world and the wonders of God’s creation. Galileo took this further to his excommunication from the church, but a strengthened faith in God.

    Doubt often leads to deeper faith. 

    So, when we doubt, we begin to examine our lives to determine what is true, right, and 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. At the beginning of the text, Jesus appeared to the disciples, and they believed. They had to share it with others. Thomas was not in the room when Jesus first appeared, 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 unbelievable, and he needed more proof.

    Jesus was dead – Thomas had seen him brutally tortured and murdered. He saw his lifeless body placed in a tomb.

    We don’t know why Thomas was not with the others when Jesus appeared for the first time. But indeed, 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 can be much like his. 

    When Jesus appeared to the disciples a second time, Thomas was there and declared 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 risen. He wanted to see the scars and touch them to assure himself that it was true – Jesus was alive and had overcome death!

    Just as Thomas doubted, we feel compelled in our doubts to see for ourselves. Just as Thomas wanted tangible proof, we need to know that what Jesus promised us is still a reality in spite of our complex and cruel world. We need to know that

    • life is eternal,
    • that to live as He did,
    • to follow His example of love, compassion, service, and forgiveness
    • will lead us to true life, here on earth and beyond
    • and that where He is eternally, there we will also be.

    Like Thomas, we all must seek, experience, meditate, and question until we come to understand, through confidence in the word of Jesus, that He is faithful. His promise is eternal, and we can believe in Him with all our hearts and minds.

    I leave you with this poem, ‘Thomas, Undone,’ by Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes:

    The un-ease you feel is not doubt.
    It is hunger to go deeper.
    You are not done yet.

    Learn from Thomas, 
    who, when Jesus planned to go to Bethany
    where they had tried to stone him,
    said, “Let us go die with him.”

    You want to see the scar of your betrayal
    and how love bears it. 

    You want to touch the
    wounds and enter the heart of
    The One Who Suffers for the world and lives.

    Now, more than before,
    you are ready to come and die with him,
    let love undo you and begin again.

    Don’t belittle your restlessness.
    Let it lead you.
    Reach out.
    Even now he is saying your name. [3]

    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 someday 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] Cartoon by Joshua Harris
    [2] John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, HarperOne, 2014
    [3] Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes, ‘Thomas, Undone’, Unfolding Light

     

    Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Columbus, OH; 24 April 2022

Banned ‘Everywhere Babies’

And this got the book banned?!?!?!?

https://www.washingtonpost.com/parenting/2022/04/22/banned-books-everywhere-babies/?utm_campaign=wp_main&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook&fb_news_token=X0rifnpoqZkyygEqnTZbiw%3D%3D.ujy63VRyU9TV1cWiTyxkmWqPh0da4QS9XzHjWL99OlYcJog3lWL1UumFBnZifbh4nLvXdawdVu%2Bdc%2FwJNGRMvnQNco9uqOD2HWavWoeX3a5%2FkdXR1mcqndLaYzgVCTdkdbL8Aba0SlMeXs2MnlE4G%2FoJGeAWbNMJt4pRgQtdPoURuSjRWqqLxcJ%2Fokv%2BxNYmxfTddHvAWXPLSdEdyzWT4PaIr50qHK7KiJ6R52hF9jMwdnVOc76w5GJ%2F%2FQONI%2B8fmuC09Laj3erzPmJOK1uYRMk2viKYMkEC6ojYKI4U63TN2tLVIE6oEfYhZy935u4ds%2BMVPQHvP2QadmbhukuLab990iIJ9f4FW0yPd9AUspE%3D&fbclid=IwAR0Bxt6XxlgCERBCfpjaA82MC4CpTNAqLNm19e222jgsflumgb97HucyBek

 

 

“Second Chance” Sunday

Luke 13:6-9

Welcome to the third Sunday in Lent, known to some people as ‘Second Chance’ Sunday. We are over halfway through the season of Lent, a time for reflection and transformation of our hearts and minds and souls.

We just heard one of the many parables – stories that use everyday things and events to teach a lesson. Jesus often told parables to help the disciples and crowds understand his message. But usually, these stories, although they had a moral, were not easy to understand.

Parables are a tricky business. We have to be careful about how we interpret them. We have to be especially careful about associating each of the characters within the parable.

So, when we hear this parable, it might be very easy to interpret it this way: the fig tree owner is God. The caretaker or gardener is Jesus, and the tree is us. The tree isn’t producing fruit—in other words, we aren’t living a righteous life. So God is angry and wants to cut the tree down. But Jesus says,

“No, let’s give it one more year. Then you can cut it down.”

I want to tell you that is the wrong interpretation of the parable. God as the owner is not the God we know. If the fig tree owner represents God, then this is a God who’s angry, impatient, and vengeful.

Is that the God we believe in?

Is that the God we find revealed in scripture?

No!

When we listen to this parable, we must be careful about which character we choose to represent God. In my opinion, God is not the owner of the fig tree.

We are the owner of the fig tree. We are the ones who are impatient and can be cruel. We are the ones who see a person suffering and assume they deserve it. We are the ones who want to write people off, to ‘cut down’ the fig tree.

We are the owner of the fig tree. God is the caretaker; God is the gardener. God is the one who says,

“No, I don’t think we should cut this tree down. Give me a chance. Let me tend to the soil, spread some grace around, and see what blooms.”

God cares for the suffering. At times, we are the fig tree—we are suffering, we are withered, and we cannot thrive. But God still cares for us; God tends to us. God digs around in our lives and spreads grace around our roots so that we can grow.

God, as the caretaker says,

“Sir, leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.”

Does that mean God only gives us one chance when we’re suffering? Is God interested in cutting us down if we take too long to recover?

No. Certainly not. I don’t think that’s the point of the parable. If God is the gardener, I don’t think God is giving the tree a second chance. I believe God is giving the owner a second chance. God is telling the owner (us),

“Do you really think this tree deserves to be cut down? Do you really think I should give up? I’m going to keep caring for the tree, and in a year, I’ll ask you again. You can give up on this tree if you want to, but I will keep working.”

Jesus told this parable to a group of people who probably did not get it. This parable is not about the poor fig tree but what God expects of His followers. 

First of all, the owner is not God, but us!

God is the caretaker. He feeds and nourishes us and expects that we become fruitful, good faithful members of His Kingdom. He provides us with everything we need. You may have noticed that the fig tree was planted with grapevines in the vineyard. We are ‘planted’ among those not like us to allow us to flourish and prosper as examples of God’s love.

We need to cultivate our relationship with God – let him water, and feed and prune us until we bear that fruit. We need to read the Bible, say our prayers and listen to those who can teach us about God’s love. And God expects us to eventually grow and bear ‘fruit’ to be good active members of our community and of His Kingdom.

We need to pay attention to our fruit as it begins to grow–

those good figs that make us a good Christian and a good person. . .

and those ‘rotten’ figs that we need to get rid of.

We all have good traits, and we need to remember those and count them daily. We need to give thanks for them and live, using them as a yardstick for our daily lives. Those rotten figs which are not good (like always being negative or angry or vengeful) should also be counted. And we need to try to decrease those rotten figs so that there is less each time we count them. 

We also need to measure how many good figs we have. Too many of us run around, being ‘busy.’ But that is like running in circles with one foot nailed to the floor. Sometimes I find myself so ‘busy’ but realize that I have not accomplished a single thing. I have run around frantically, like a chicken with its head cut off. I have not achieved a single thing. This is a wasted effort! We need to make our busyness productive – to create good figs, not rotten figs or even emptiness.

We need to learn from those who are really fruitful, who produce good figs with everything they do. We all know people who seem to be doing everything right and making the world a better place. We need to study them and see how they are bettering the Kingdom of God. Hang around them, ask questions, learn from them.

We need to become active. . . not sit around waiting for the good figs to appear suddenly. Get out on the streets, spread God’s love, help others who need it. No one ever produced anything good from sitting on our duff and waiting for something to drop in our lap miraculously; generally, all we get is a bigger lap. All of us can do something in the community to make it a better place. Get up and get moving. . .  but bear good fruit when we do it, not just be active to look busy.

We all know that things grow better when they are fed with nutrients. And as God the gardener told the owner, use your manure. We all have manure in our lives, things that stink or seem useless. But that stinky stuff can often make us a better, more fruitful person. Think about it this way:

God gave us this manure, these hardships so that our roots can be fertilized, enriched, and encouraged to grow – so that we can grow more figs. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen. But we have to use that manure, not to create more manure, but to feed us and make us grow stronger. As we grow stronger, the amount of manure grows less. . . and doesn’t stink as much. 

One of my favorite illustrations is a little boy in a stable digging through horse manure like crazy. When asked what he was doing, he said, “I know there’s a pony under here somewhere.” So we need to keep shoveling until we find our pony.

And, MOST OF ALL, we must never forget, even when we aren’t fruitful or still have rotten figs or run around to look busy, God does not ‘cut us down.’ He is the gardener who knew what the fig tree needed. He doesn’t give up on us, no matter how many rotten figs we may have. He continues to feed and nourish us until we do bear good fruit. His love is eternal; all we have to do is stay close to Him and let him nourish us.

Although the fig tree is still expected to bear fruit, it is given a little tender care to help it get there! Even suffering and failure need not prevent us from being fruitful if we are offered and accept God’s mercy and support.

Bearing fruit is something that all of us can do. We don’t have to have a university degree; we don’t have to be gifted in terms of leadership or technical abilities or gifted as speakers. All we need is Christ’s heart giving us sensitivity to the needs of others and the willingness to serve.

THERE IS ONE AREA OF LIFE WHERE ALL OF US ARE EQUALLY GIFTED. That is in following Jesus and bearing spiritual fruit.

The question is, is it that important to us?

Are we willing to give it our best?

Do we love Jesus that much?

The point is that life does not ask us to become what we are not. God only requires the fig tree to produce figs. No more. You and I are asked only to accomplish what our natural gifts allow.

BUT WE ARE ASKED TO ACCOMPLISH THAT.

God expects each of us to be accountable for the character of our lives and what they produce. Life is uncertain; you, me, anyone here at any time, could die at the hands of some mad man or in some accident or of old age.

While we have the chance right now, we need to change our lives. Follow Jesus. Look to our future. What do you want your life to stand for if you were to die right now?

Resurrection Day is coming. Today and going forward in this barren time of Lent, may we all pray earnestly for God’s gift of fruitfulness and promise. Jesus has the ability to restore our faith, our hope, and our passion. Will we be ready?

Sometimes we are like the owner of the fig tree. When we judge people by their circumstances, when we are blaming victims for their suffering, when we are writing people off and giving up on them, God gives us a second chance. God’s not giving the suffering person a second chance to thrive—or else. God’s giving us another opportunity to repent from our victim-blaming attitude, selfishness, and cruelty. God’s giving us another chance to learn something about caring for those in need. God’s giving us another chance to follow in the footsteps of God the gardener.

What we learn from this parable is that God is a good gardener. God has grace and care for those in need and mercy for those who fail to care for those in need. God is our good gardener, whether we are like the struggling tree or the harsh owner. God does not give up on us. God does not stop caring for us. God always has grace to share with us.

So on this ‘Second Chance’ Sunday, what will you do with this ‘second chance’ we have been given?

Are we willing to accept this ‘second chance’?

Are we willing to be watered, and fed and nourished by God?

Are we willing to produce more good fruit?

Let us pray:

Dear Lord, we often let the bad fruit overtake us and forget that you are there to feed and nourish us so that we can become good fruit. Help us to replace all that is not pleasing to you with good fruit. Guide us and remind us that we are yours and your love is eternal.

Amen.

 

Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Columbus, OH; 20 March 2022

UNDER JESUS’ WINGS

Luke 13:31-35

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength, and our redeemer. Amen. (Psalm 19:14).

We hear in the Gospel that Jesus refers to Herod as 

“that fox” (Luke 13:32).

This is a symbolic reference to ‘the fox in the hen house’; Herod is the fox, and Jesus compares himself to a mother hen who defends her chicks, even to death.

Unless you lived on a farm or spent summers there, you probably have little or no experience with chickens and hens. Your experience is probably limited to freshly packaged meat at the grocery store or cooked and ready to eat from the Colonel at KFC. In Jesus’ time, however, everyone knew chicken’s behavior. They were raised in the backyard for thousands of years, or even in the house. They had watched hens react to impending threats. When a fox first comes into view, the hen starts to bring her chicks under the shelter of her wings. If the fox gets too close, the hen launches an attack against the fox, willing to sacrifice her life for her brood. 

Jesus tells us that God’s love for us is like that.  

“There have been so many times that I wanted to gather the children of God together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” (Luke 13:34)

Even though Jesus knows that these very children will be the ones who will betray, persecute, and eventually crucify him, he still wants to gather us under his arms as a hen does chicks. That love is eternal!

Have you ever spent any time watching geese and ducks? I get to do that every morning when I take my walk. Canadian geese who make the Scioto Mile their home have up to ten goslings in the spring. The female will gather her little brood together when anyone approaches and move them further out into the river. If I get closer for a better look, she goes into attack mode – hissing and moving toward me and sometimes coming onto the bank to come after me. She wants me to notice her and encourages me to get as far away from her goslings as possible. She draws attention to herself to protect her offspring. And if a Canadian goose has ever attacked you, you know she means business!

Jesus’ love is so great that his all-consuming passion is to sweep us up into his protective arms. And although there are others in pursuit of him, primarily Herod and the Pharisees, Jesus stays true to what his love compels him to do. He protects his flock with single-mindedness. 

He must remain in Galilee a little longer, and then, he is headed to Jerusalem, where he will sacrifice himself for all God’s children. 

This image of God as a female or one with motherly instincts can be disturbing for some. It is counter to what we’ve heard and known since we were young. Most of us have been raised with a patriarchal view of God; we regularly use the male pronoun in place of God. We think of God as all-powerful, all-mighty, all-knowing. Those images tend to reinforce His maleness image. But here, in this passage of Luke, we have another image – Jesus as a mother hen, with all her love and passion for her children, gathering them under her protective wings.

And I ask you, isn’t that image more helpful in assisting us in understanding what God is really like?

One of the many traits of Jesus is that he is a man who can do anything – walk on water; turn a couple of fish and a few loaves into a feast for thousands, even raise the dead. But in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus states He cannot make us love Him – He cannot control human will. 

Jesus has tried to gather this flock many times. He will later walk out of a tomb, but he can’t walk into our hearts today without permission. We have to be willing to accept that love and willingly come together under his wing.

The well-known preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. He will be a mother hen who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.”

I love the image of family and community from the picture of a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings. Not only are you safe when you are gathered close to the Lord, but you are not alone! You have the Lord, but you also have those with whom you are gathered. There is unity and togetherness. We are all sharing in the Lord’s comfort together.

I suspect anyone who has loved someone deeply and knows they can’t shelter them from harm’s way understands the pain in Jesus’ lament. His desire cannot overpower our will. Jesus is powerless to do that.

We have to be willing! 

This is Jesus’ wish, Jesus’ invitation — to a community of love and belonging under His wings, knowing the safety and protection of such a place which then invites you to imagine and live into the person God has called you to be.

But He cannot force us to come into God’s love and protection.

The last four words in Luke 13:34 – 

“If you are willing.”

“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)

are some of the most powerful words in the Bible, then 

… and now! 

“I will love you and shelter you like a mother hen protects her chicks …

if … 

(and only if) …

we are willing”. 

Are we going to make the same mistake as those in Jerusalem and NOT let Jesus gather us under his wing? 

Are we going to seek shelter in the loving arms of Jesus?

He is calling! Will we answer?

Let us pray:

Gather us, Mother Christ.
Gather us in from our fears and doubts.
Hold us under your tireless wing,
shield use from hungers that wander,
guard us from flighty desires.
Save us from the evil we would suffer
and the evil we would do.
Gather us with all your children,
those we love and those we do not,
for we shelter together, but alone, wander.
Mother Christ, keep us by your covering side,
tender us at your nursing breast,
close by you wherever you go,
so that even up Golgotha’s hill,
bearing the cross with you
I am under your wing,

under your wing.[1]

Amen.

Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Columbus, OH; 13 March 2022


[1]      Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “Gather Me”, Unfolding Light (adapted)

WHO IS OUR NEIGHBOR? UKRAINE!!

Luke 10:29

One of the primary ministries of Deacons in the Episcopal Church is to ‘take the church to the world, and the world to the church.’ This is going to be one of those Sundays.

This is the second time I had a sermon prepared, and current events compelled me to write a new one to address the atrocities occurring in Ukraine.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, wrote the following prayer for peace and justice. Let us pray:

God of peace and justice, We pray for the people of Ukraine today. We pray for peace and the laying down of weapons. We pray for all those who fear for tomorrow, that your Spirit of comfort would draw near to them. We pray for those with power over war or peace For wisdom, discernment and compassion To guide their decisions. Above all, we pray for all your precious children, at risk and in fear, That you would hold and protect them. We pray in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Amen.[1]

More than a dozen faith leaders offered prayers for a peaceful resolution to the escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine during an online vigil Wednesday, February 23, hosted by the Episcopal Church and the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

“There are people and children of God whose lives and freedom are threatened, and so we pray,” said Bishop Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

The vigil came not long after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the independence of two Ukrainian regions bordering Russia and delivered a speech arguing Ukraine is part of Russia’s “own history, culture, and spiritual space.” Russian troops have been amassing around three sides of Ukraine for the last couple of weeks.

Faith leaders at the prayer vigil said members of their traditions dream of working for a world without war — and part of that work is prayer. They offered prayers for presidents Biden, Putin, and Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine. The faith leaders lamented the world’s worship of power and acknowledged that the poor and marginalized are the ones who would be the most impacted by continuing conflict.

“We’re here with a commitment and persistence that peace is still possible. We can pull the world back from this brink yet.”[1] “We urge all those involved in this conflict to do everything they can to immediately end the hostilities, return to the negotiating table, protect all human life. We know that another way is possible.”

“The drums of war are beating louder with each passing moment,” “We must stand up as people of faith and people of peace to speak truth to power.”[2]

And, we as Christians must add our prayers to those around the world seeking a peaceful resolution to this conflict.

As Martin Luther King, Jr said:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

“no one is free until all are free.”

Some people think that this conflict between Russia and Ukraine is none of our business. Or some view this as an example of the rightful reclaiming of something that had been lost. A faction of the United States fully supports Vladimir Putin’ reclaiming’ territory lost that once constituted the Soviet Union. Those countries broke away because they wanted to be self-determining and not under the control of oligarchs whose only interest was amassing their personal wealth to the detriment and sometimes death of their own people.

We MUST remember our recent history when Europe chose to ignore the early actions of Adolph Hitler. He consumed Poland in September 1939. No one took a stand at that time, thinking of him as an insignificant, petty madman. This was followed by Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France in the Spring of 1940; Yugoslavia and Greece in the Spring of 1941 – in less than two short years, he changed the face of Europe. Then there was no stopping him, and we ended up in World War II. We cannot forget the ambitions of a despot left to his own devices.

Putin has invaded Ukraine to ‘rescue’ those Ukrainian people he perceives as Russian. In 2014, he annexed Crimea in a similar move, ending Post-Cold War European stability. It is not coincidental that the area he has invaded happens to be on a path to the Balkans, a country Putin has long wanted to rejoin to Russia. Reclaiming the Soviet Union is not a new dream of his; we cannot remain blind to Putin’s ultimate plan to rule the entire world!

Multiple meetings with Putin and members of NATO and Europe failed in negotiations to stop his takeover of part of Ukraine. Germany, France, and Britain offered many alternatives, all to no avail. A line was drawn in the sand, which he insisted on crossing. Not only did Russia breach the borders of a sovereign country, but they have also executed a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Putin has vowed not to stop the assault until the Ukraine government topples. He has compounded this with a threat to open the nuclear wastewater storage at Chernobyl. Already Russian tanks are stirring up radioactive dust as they move through the nuclear plant site. The radiation levels in the worst-hit areas of the reactor building can provide a fatal dose of radiation in just over one minute.

NATO and countries of the European Union have united with the United States to contain this encroachment and cut off crucial resources to Russia. Germany has already shut down the natural gas pipeline to Russia. NATO has mobilized its European military resources along the border of Ukraine, Belarus, and Crimea. In addition, the United States has frozen the export of technology required for military and aerospace development, and imposed monetary sanctions against Russian banks, directly affecting the oligarchs close to Putin. Sanctions have been imposed against Belarus, which has facilitated the attack on Ukraine. These sanctions will soon begin to have an immediate effect on the stability of Russia, but they take time to start to affect those who are in charge. Additional military materials and armaments have been sent to Ukraine to bolster their security; we have been assured that no Americans will be engaged in any fighting.

There will be a conference of 37 countries, NATO, the European Union, and Japan, to determine additional pressure that can be brought to contain Putin and stop the war. This is the first time since World War II that all European nations and coalitions have banded together to address the aggression of Russia. Scandinavian countries, in the past, have remained neutral during any conflict but are joining the meetings.

We must all support Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the people of Ukraine.

What is the most unfortunate impact of the actions taken to stop Putin is on the people of Russia. Being a dictator and oligarch, Putin cares nothing about the Russian people. Since he controls the news, many people in Russia may not even know what is going on or is being informed the war is caused by the ‘horrible aggressor,’ the United States.

More Russian people will be the victims of this assault on Ukraine. One-fifth of all Russians live in abject poverty, with another 36% ‘at risk’, amounting to approximately 19.3 million people. In a dictatorship, the innocent are always those most hurt by power-hungry leaders. And our hearts go out to those who will have more distress heaped upon their lives. Our allies are planning ways to accommodate refugees fleeing from Ukraine.

Disgustingly, political opponents of the current administration are using this situation to further erode the support and direction of the United States. They espouse the previous administration’s adoration of Putin. We have to remember that Putin’s goal is to destroy the United States. We must refuse to fall in with the naysayers, take a deep breath, and wait until things settle down. Fomenting discord will only support Putin’s goal of destroying democracies.

Gas and food prices will temporarily go up as the administration figures a way to stabilize the war on Ukraine’s effect on the American economy. This may cause us some hardship, but we need to keep the homeless, injured, and killed in our minds and hearts because of this war. This is the time for us to take care of our neighbors, those on fixed incomes, who may feel the increase in the cost of living. As Jesus told us:

We are our brother’s keeper.

But the Ukrainians are not without backbone; Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people have vowed to never surrender to Russia. Thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest the occupation; there are pockets of resistance who are taking measures to impede the advancement of Russian troops by destroying bridges along the supply line and sabotaging troop movements. The Russian army has not taken control of any of the encroached territory; the Ukrainians are showing much more resistance than Putin anticipated. Any Ukrainian adult has been provided with a gun to help protect their country. In an interview, one 80-year old man, who had never fired a weapon before, said he would google to find out how to do it. This has become a David and Goliath conflict.

Although Putin controls the national media, reporters, independent news agencies, internet groups, and social media broadcast the ‘real’ story of this war. Even in Russia, thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest the war. Thousands of brave people have been arrested and detained in 54 Russian cities. But others will continue to make news available in Russia and the outside world and protest the atrocity. Since the assault has not turned out as Putin has expected, he has shut off all state media.

In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus reminds us:

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man . . .”

“The one who had mercy on him.” . . .

“Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36-37)

We are not helpless in this struggle, although we mourn the effects on the innocent people of the area. We can support the resettlement of those refugees fleeing through organizations like the International Rescue Committee and the UN Refugee Agency. There are other agencies providing support for those still residing in Ukraine. Please be careful whom you may donate to, though. Many use most of the money for their own advancement, with little going to humanitarian care.

We can also not purchase any materials/services from Russia. The State of Ohio and many independent grocers and liquor stores are dumping all Russian vodka and not buying any Russian spirits. Delta Airlines had severed its association with the airline, Russian Aeroflot. Investors might look at what Russian holdings are in their portfolios. These actions may seem insignificant, but each little effort will further enforce the sanctions imposed by countries and governments. We can each do our part. Remember what happens with one little pebble dropped in the water.

As Christians or people of faith, we are directed by Jesus:

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (Luke 6:35)

That means we need to pray not only for those suffering but also for those who perpetrate these atrocities. That should be our mission.

Not only should we pray for those people in the path of the war, but those who are brave enough to risk their lives to get the news out and resist the encroaching army. And as much as it may stick in our craw, we must pray for the Russian military and the leaders of the assault.

A friend of mine, Right Reverend Bonnie Perry of the Diocese of Michigan, made this plea to Episcopalians and all Christians around the world:

“Pray my friends. Pray in a way you never have before. Pray with the passion and responsibility of the people who are being called to heal. Read the news, do not look away. Talk about the suffering we are seeing. Talk about it endlessly, bear witness to it. Name the pain. Name the suffering caused by unbridled aggression and unfettered greed for control. Name the evil that is taking place. Talk about the people whose homes and lives are crumbling around them. Imagine it is you, your life, your children. Embrace the sanctions and the ramifications those sanctions will have for us. Embrace them proudly and boldly.”[3]

Let us do the one thing that we can to end this violence.

We can pray

For those fleeing: we pray for sanctuary

For those who are staying: safety

For those who are fighting: peace

For those whose hearts are breaking: comfort

For those who see no future: hope.

PRAY!

Heavenly Father, Today we want to pray for the people living in fear. Those who want to be free from the distress caused by the world’s turmoil we are in today. Even though we may not know them, Lord, You see the fear and anxiety. They may be fearful, tired, discouraged, and frustrated, but don’t let them give up. For we know that you are a faithful God who will give them the peace they seek today and bless them in many ways. Help all of us to stay strong in faith throughout these challenging days we live in, as the Holy Spirit continues to lead our way. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.

                       Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Columbus, OH; 27 February 2022


[1]      Archbishop Justin Welby, Archbishop Stephen Cottrell

[2]      Tarunjit Singh Butalia of Religions for Peace USA

[3]      The Right Rev Bonnie Perry, Diocese of Michigan, “Pain”,

IN MEMORY OF DRU ROBERT ZIMMERMAN

Today we come to celebrate the life of Dru Zimmerman, a brother, an uncle, great-uncle, and a dear friend to too many people to count. Although he is no longer with us, his memory will live on in our hearts for eternity. We feel his lively and beautiful spirit with us today, and we hope he can sense our love for him in this room. We not only love you, but have learned much from you, been inspired by you, and been made to laugh and be joyful in your presence! We will always remember you!

As an adopted son, Dru created his own family, collecting and loving and encouraging a wide variety of people to his humor, kindness, steely determination, and acceptance of anyone he called his ‘friend’. We will remember him.

In the rising of the sun and in its going down, we remember him

In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of Winter, we remember him

In the opening buds and in the rebirth of Spring, we remember him

In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of Summer, we remember him

In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of Autumn, we remember him

In the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember him

When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember him

When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember him

When we have joys we yearn to share, we remember him

So long as we live, he too shall live, for he is now a part of us,

as we remember him.[1]

Each of us will carry in our hearts those special moments that will help us remember Dru.

My wife, Karen, and I knew him for over the eight years we have lived at The Waterford. Recently, we were fortunate to live on the same floor with Dru after he purchased Barbara Haven’s unit. He was very involved in The Waterford Community, intent in maintaining its high quality while trying to make it a much better place to live. One thing could be said for Dru – he knew ‘how it should be’ and was very vocal when something did not meet his standards. We would sit on the sidelines of the Condo Association meetings and, under our breaths, criticize what he didn’t think they were doing right; I don’t think the board was very happy about us, but we sure had fun. And his concern extended beyond our building; he considered himself a watch guard for the area around the building and Bicentennial Park, and was very vocal in his disdain – we all heard a lot about the noise and dirty diapers around the park!

Dru studied art at Kendal College and graduated with a degree in art from Ohio Wesleyan. He was a creator, collector and critical and appreciative patron of a wide variety of art genre. He had an affinity for art, particularly photography and copper enameling. He spent a lot of time at the Cultural Art Center creating beautiful pieces made from strings of colored glass. Members of his Enameling Studio at the Cultural Art Center reminds us:

“Dru was such fun to share studio time with, his dry humor and generosity with his creative collaboration and knowledge of enameling made him a joy to have with us! His presence will be sorely missed.”

Other friends noted:

“Dru was the most delightful human being I have ever had the honor of calling not just my peer at work but my friend in the world.  “

“He was loving, accepting, and so funny. My heart aches for his family and friends. I hope the many memories we all have will help keep him cherished in our hearts and give strength to all during this sad time.”

Dru was extremely close to Barbara Havens – I remember they used to sit and watch I Love Lucy episodes on almost a daily basis, and he was often down here in the evenings. He was deeply impacted by the death of Barbara, and managed to purchase her unit to preserve her legacy and somehow remain close to her spirit. I would say that Barbara was probably the most significant person in Dru’s life and he was significantly impacted by her death.

We come together today from the diversity of our grieving,

to gather in the warmth of this community,

giving stubborn witness to our belief that

in times of sadness, there is room for laughter.

In times of darkness, there always will be light.

May we hold fast to the conviction

that what we do with our lives matters.

Dru was alone in his death; no one had heard from him for several days, and on Thanksgiving Day of last year, he was discovered during a wellness check. We can only hope that he went quietly in his sleep.

And now we know what grief is, . . .

and guilt for not following up with him earlier,

and love for his spirit and flare for life

and things undone.

But there is peace too. Peace and acceptance and overwhelming love that we maybe weren’t aware of, waves and waves of conflicting emotion,

And laughter too,

and memories we hadn’t bothered lately to recall come flooding back in shared company.

. . and it is all about you, Dru!

And there’s gratitude. . .

so much of that, that we had you…

Bright and shining, nobody’s fool, independent, but humble too;

Smart, and kind, and fun.

A part of you has passed away, but much is carried everyday within us, and will as long as we are here. So we are here to remember you, your spirit, and how you have left your mark on each of us.

This may be a final tribute,

A day to celebrate your life and say goodbyes;

But it is not final![2]

Your friends will keep your memory, and that zest for life you taught us. Every day we’ll celebrate in some way, just by the virtue of how you shaped our lives, because of the absolute and incredible fortune that we knew you.

Dru’s life was a combination of personalities: the fun-loving member of our community and that serious person who cared for others. He certainly believed in ‘peas & carrots’ – you will hear more about that a little later.

Those who have known him for a long time can remember the times he entertained us with his hilarious drag queen outfits and skits, or his enthusiasm for fine food, and always wanting to go out with friends; and that hidden soft spot in his heart when he witnessed injustice.

Two special friends (Pepe and Dave) are going to help us remember those memories of Dru that we will always carry with us.

We are told in an oft-heard scripture from Ecclesiastes:

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-4)

Dru, we are grateful that you have broken the bounds of your suffering,

that you feel pain no more,

and that you’re free to be yourself, without restraints.

In closing, I would like to read a poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye, written in 1932, for a young German Jewish woman, Margaret Schwarzkopf, who was staying with her and her husband. When Margaret’s mother fell ill and died, she was distraught that it was not safe to return to Germany. The heartbroken young woman told Frye that she never had the chance to “stand by my mother’s grave and shed a tear”. Frye found herself composing a piece of verse on a brown paper shopping bag. Later she said that the words “just came to her” and expressed what she felt about life and death. This reminds us that death is not all there is:

Do not stand at my grave and weep

I am not there. I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow.

I am the diamond glints on snow.

I am the sunlight on ripened grain.

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning’s hush

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circled flight.

I am the soft stars that shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry;

I am not there.

I did not die.

Dru, you have left us wiser, happier, and enriched – and we thank God for sending you to be our friend. And now in your honor and memory, we will go forth today in life – to do what you so fully lived – have a wonderful party and care for and love one another.

And so, although Dru Robert Zimmerman no longer walks this earthly realm,

he is still with us, . . .

loving us, . . .

ever present in our hearts and minds.

Let us take the time to tell stories to one another that brings Dru’s memory back to us – the funny, the sarcastic, the caring and essence that made him Dru.

Let us pray:

We lift up those who have lost loved ones. We see images of families in celebration; but their emotions are far from happy. There are empty places in their hearts where loved ones have been called from life. We lift them up to you that you might give them strength to get through their mourning. We ask for your grace to comfort them in their time of need. We thank you for their faithfulness and fear, hope and doubt, sorrow and joy. Amen.

                  The Rev deniray mueller, Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, OH; 14 November 2021


[1]      Adapted from Yom Kippur Service, Michelle Markert Rubin

[2]      Unknown source

Racism: Our Past and PRESENT Sins

Luke 6:17-26

During the month of February, you may have noticed that we have been singing hymns from Lift Every Voice and Sing. This hymnal is part of The Episcopal Church’s recognition of Black History Month and its African-American congregants. We will continue to use these hymns as part of our recognition of the significant contributions African-Americans have made to the United States.

I am glad that there is an official recognition of Black History Month, but what I am concerned about is that Black History Month is not to commemorate African-American’s contributions, but to educate the ‘white folk’ to a whole world of history we are totally unaware of. Dedicating a month to the actual history of slavery does not make up for the other eleven months of the year of intentional omission of their history. We have a long way to go, and the church needs to lead the way.

In The Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints, today we celebrate the Blessed Reverend Absalom Jones, born into slavery, and freed through manumission in 1784. He served as the lay minister for the black membership at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church with his friend, Richard Allen, and together they established the Free African Society to aid in the emancipation of slaves and to offer sustenance and spiritual support to widows, orphans, and the poor.

Alarmed at the increase in the black population attending the church, in 1791, the Vestry of St. George’s decided to segregate African Americans into an upstairs gallery without notice, forcibly removing those worshippers from the main floor one Sunday. Allen and Jones, and members of their group immediately left that church, never to return.

In 1792, Allen and Jones applied to join the Episcopal Church, and after satisfying all the requirement for membership, African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas became a member of The Episcopal Church. In 1802, Absalom Jones became the first African-American ordained as a priest. Throughout his life, until his death in 1818, he continued to work to abolish slavery and better the conditions of African-Americans. In 1973, General Convention added him to our list of saints, with his feast day being 13 February.

What Absalom Jones and Richard Allen and their followers experience is the biggest black eye on religion. . . and the government . . . and current anti-history groups.

I have heard people say:

”Isn’t it ‘sweet’ that the blacks have the month of February to celebrate their history”?

Let me tell you something, they do not need a month to celebrate their history!!! Since 1440 they have lived it, endured it, died because of it. It is ingrained in their genes and their DNA. Black History Month is for the education of white people who have never been taught, nor thought about what being a slave meant. We sat in our white privilege totally oblivious to the suffering of others. And even today, there is a movement to restrict or prohibit the teaching of the true history of this country. And their power is increasing through affiliation with legislatures who are appealing to the least denominator to ensure hatred and fear is propagated so that they can remain in power.

Here is some black history that is not taught in the schools, and will not be taught if these bigoted, racist people prevail.

Christopher Columbus was the first European slave trader in the Americas. He likely transported the first Africans to the Americas in the late 1490s on his expeditions. He sent more slaves across the Atlantic Ocean than any individual of his time-about 5,000.

Hundreds of thousands of Africans, both free and enslaved were brought to America around 1516, to aid in the establishment and survival of colonies in the Americas and the New World.

Then in 1607, when Jamestown was settled, Africans referred to as ‘servants’ were brought over to do the demeaning manual work required to establish a colony. Furthermore, many consider a significant starting point to slavery in America to be 1619, when the privateer The White Lion brought 20 enslaved African ashore in the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia. This was the beginning of the aggressive program of promoting slavery in the United States. This history is well documented in the “1619 Project”, written by Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times. Not only does it chronicle slavery, but also celebrates Black Americans’ commitment to rights and freedoms historically denied them.

Between 1525 and 1866, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. Only 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America. To put this into a modern perspective, the deaths of enslaved men, women and children that died on the voyages because of illness, crowded ships and cruelty relatively matches the number of people who have died of COVID in the United States.

Any question about the status of Black people in the colonies—free, enslaved or indentured servants—was made clear with the passage of the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705, a series of laws that stripped away legal rights of these people and legalized the barbaric and dehumanizing practice of slavery.

Not only were these slaves used to further the economic wealth of the European residents, but they also served in the military to protect this fledging country. One of the first martyrs to the cause of American patriotism was Crispus Attucks, a former enslaved man who was killed by British soldiers during the Boston Massacre of 1770. Some 5,000 freed and slave black soldiers and sailors fought on the American side during the Revolutionary War.

Sanctioned slavery existed in the United States until Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Declaration in 1862 and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. However, that only shifted the foundations of ‘slavery’ to other social programs such as Jim Crow Laws that denied blacks civil rights, the rising of the Ku Klux Klan, and ‘whites only’ restrictions.

And these practices may have become more sophisticated, but still exist today in forms of voter suppression, economic poverty, redlining, and refusal to teach the ‘real’ history of this nation in many parts of the country.

But some churches are trying to atone for their involvement in the slave trade, including The Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church, in its 2006 General Convention endorsed reparations for 250 years of American slavery. Resolution A124 admitted “the complicity of the Episcopal Church” in slavery and the church’s “economic benefits” from it. It calls for a study “as a matter of justice,” the church can “share those benefits with African American Episcopalians.” The Diocese of Maryland, Texas, Long Island, Georgia and New York have active reparation tasks force to commit education and monies to support descendants of the original slaves. Several Diocese and colleges have renamed buildings and removed statues of known slave owners from their campuses. Other mainline denominations are also beginning this process.

In the Diocese of Southern Ohio, there is a Reparations Task Force, working to create memorials to those blacks who were lynched/murdered in Ohio. This task force is chaired by Rev Karl Stevens at Saint Stephen’s on campus.

As we heard in today’s gospel reading, Jesus’ message is one of inclusion, not one of exclusion. The good news Jesus proclaims is not only for the Jewish community, but it is for everyone. It is not just for the religious elite, but it is also for the common laypersons. It is not just for the powerful and the privileged, but it is also for those on the margins: the women, the widows, the children; the poor, the sick, the blind; the immigrants, the oppressed.

The most frequently used word in this scripture is the word “blessed”. To be “blessed,” means living in an awareness of the presence of God, not free from struggle, but oriented to God’s kingdom. In each of these blessings, there is a dichotomy between the struggle and what the promise is: the hungry will be filled, the weeping will give way to laughter.

Jesus used the words ‘blessed are’ over 400 times in the Bible, and almost exclusively addressing those who are the poor, the lesser of society, and the least. His words are simple, straightforward and concrete.

The Kingdom of God that Jesus is offering is for ALL people – and it is especially offered to those most vulnerable. It is an upside down Kingdom of God, where the last would be first and the first will be last, the poor will be blessed, and the slave will be free.

Jesus presents a totally different standard of living – the opposite of the world’s standard. He says that the poorer you are, the more blessings you will receive. When you are hungry and in grief, a great blessing is coming your way. On the other hand, if you are rich and laughing at this moment and when people speak well of you, your life is in trouble.

Eugene Peterson paraphrases it best in these verses in The Message:

But it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made. What you have is all you’ll ever get. And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself. Your self will not satisfy you for long. And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games, There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it. “There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests—look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular. (Luke 6:24-26)

This was a radical concept – especially in a world where it was those who had religious and societal power who were seen as worthy of receiving blessings, and where those who were poor, sick, or had any physical ailments were believed to be sinful and thus cursed for their sins.

We must always remember that Jesus came for the last, the least and the lost. He came to bring glad tidings to the poor and freedom to the oppressed. He provided hope for the hopeless and taught the people the importance of faith. Then He asked them to be servants if they wanted to be the greatest. In short, He wants all of His followers to be like Him and to walk in His path. That is the life that is truly blessed.

Perhaps what we now have to do is ask the bigger question.   What sort of attitudes and actions make for better living for all?    Kind and considerate behaviour, encouraging the best outcomes for the weak and vulnerable and being prepared to make some sacrifice for others is very different from those who become obsessed with personal gain. Reflecting on the gospel account, the options given and choice made are not about some impractical and unattainable spiritual dream. The positive choice is to follow Jesus’ advice – whether we do or not is our choice.

To be the most faithful to the gospel, Luke calls us to set aside our preconceived notions of being blessed, and be willing to embrace the kind of upside-down reversals that Jesus presents. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes is meant to startle us out of our complacency and inspire us into action.

We are challenged to look at our lives and our world with new eyes. They challenge us to clarify our values and determine that things for which we are willing to take a stand. Packed into these verses are very real instructions for the disciples, AND those of us who claim to follow Christ today, to reverse the social, economic, and political injustices that surround us.

God has provided more than enough so that no one needs to starve in our world, no one needs to be without full and proper medical and dental care in our country. And no one needs to be homeless in our city. It is difficult to feel “blessed” when life is difficult, when bad and evil things seem to dominate. However, one of the promises God makes throughout the Bible is that He will bring judgment to the evil of the world. “Blessed are” those who trust that God will make good on those promises.

As Christians, it is necessary that we work toward those ends now. For as we work towards helping the poor and the disenfranchised now, we prove our citizenship in the eternal Kingdom of God.

Let us remember who we are, the blessed and the cursed, and let us respond to the winners and the losers, the rich and the poor, the hungry and the full, the celebrated and the cursed, the good and the bad, our neighbour and our enemies with compassion. Just as “our loving God is compassionate.”

Let us choose to follow him in this holy work.

A poet said it well:

Compassionate God, we recognize that our world is a broken place,
hurt by poverty, famine and disease.

We admit that sometimes we make the world a broken place,
tolerating prejudice, conflict and self-interest.

We confess that our hearts also suffer with anger,
resentment and jealousy.

Renew us in Your love, O God,
and heal us with the comfort of Your abundant love.

Awaken us to the role we can play in healing Your creation.

Strengthen us through the power of the Holy Spirit
to hear Your word and move forward in faith.[1]

And as we remember Absalom Jones, let us pray:

Set us free, heavenly Father, from every bond of prejudice and fear: that, honoring the steadfast courage of your servant Absalom Jones, we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


[1]      Gill Le Fevre, ReWorship

                       Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Columbus, OH; 13 February 2022

Not US?!?!?!

Luke 4:21-30

We just heard that Jesus went home to Nazareth to visit the family. By then, he was well-known as a teacher and rabbi and healer. You would have expected there would be a parade or a celebration that the hometown boy was back home. Because of his fame as a preacher and healer, the people of Nazareth were excited to have him preach at the synagogue.

Jesus began to read from Isaiah, where he read about the prophecy of the arrival of a savior. As he continued, He announced

“This day this Scripture passage is fulfilled even as you listen”. (Luke 4:21)

The people were excited, they had waited a long time for a savior and were ready to greet the Messiah! And he came from Nazareth – that made the people very proud. Just think of the fame that would come to them.

But their excitement wouldn’t last. Jesus was too familiar to them. As my grandmother used to say: ‘he’s too big for his britches – I know because I changed his diapers’.

We heard the crowd ask:

“Is not this Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22)

Remember, Joseph was the local carpenter – not a rabbi, not someone important, not a rich man. He was just. like. them. The green eyes of jealousy or envy struck them – why didn’t Jesus come from one of them? Why not from one of them who held a more prestigious position in Nazareth. A carpenter was a lowly position, not worthy of being the father of the man who would save all Israel.

And to add to it, Jesus was preaching that his message was for ALL the world – not just the Jewish people – but everyone in the world. Jesus challenged their understanding of the Jewish law making them God’s chosen people – and taught them of God’s generosity to outsiders.

How dare He!

Jesus’ knew that his proclamation would cause a range of emotions – from pride, to skepticism, to jealousy, to rejection. His pronouncement COULD have been a source of genuine wonder and appreciation—look how far our local boy has come!

But it’s not difficult to see that some would say:

“Joseph’s kid? Good grief. He was a nobody back in the day and he’s a nobody from a no-account family now. Forget him!”

Jesus then goes on to suggest that maybe those very detractors in the crowd would be asking him shortly to prove who he was. They wanted him to prove it!

Word had spread that he had been doing some amazing things. But Jesus was no trained monkey that performed on demand. And he made it clear that he was not going to do any of this in Nazareth. Worse, he inflamed people more by saying that with the hostility some were harboring in their hearts, the Nazareth people were not worthy of any demonstration.

God would work his wonders elsewhere, outside of Israel.

Jesus had spent his adult life making people feel uncomfortable and questioning their understanding of how people should treat each other. The Jewish laws were very specific about what was clean and unclean, who were to be acknowledged and who was to be avoided at all costs (think of the lepers and the Samaritans). But Jesus taught and showed by his actions that the lepers and the Samaritans and all those ‘unclean’ people were accepted and loved by God. . . as were ALL people.

The people were outraged! How could the Messiah come to save EVERYONE? After all, they were God’s chosen people. . . didn’t the Old Testament say only they were chosen to be God’s people?

Now here was this upstart, saying that everyone would be saved. . . that He was the savior, the Messiah!

How could He say that!!!

Jesus spoke the truth about the people of Nazareth and they DID NOT want to hear it. We all know that the truth is hard for us to hear. We don’t want to be told that what we are doing may not be what we should be doing. And certainly not that the ‘the others’ – people who were not Jewish – not of their town, deserve what the people of Nazareth expected to get from Jesus. They were angry!

I don’t often add anything personal to my homilies, but I am for this one. As a child, my mother let everyone in the world know that I was the ‘perfect’ child – I never caused any trouble, obeyed my elders and those in charge, and did everything I was supposed to. She would point out to my aunts and uncles the shortcomings of their children and how they should be more like me. She even did it in the grocery store to parents of small children! You can imagine how popular I was with my younger siblings and cousins!

But, when I went away to college, I got a good job paying more than my father had ever made, the tables were turned.

I thought my parents would be proud of me – I was the first one on both sides of the family to go to college, and I had a good job. I hadn’t been married four times like my sister. But, I was not going to come home, get married, raise a family and take care of my mother. I had lived in several states for about 10 years, making my reputation in the business world. So when I came back to Ohio, I thought they would be happy for my success – was I wrong! At one point, they came to where I worked and accosted me in the lobby, saying that I would ‘never amount to anything’, and if that was what I was getting paid, I was lying! And maybe they should talk to my boss and let her know what a horrible person I was.

Like my parents, the people of Nazareth were unkind to Jesus. They almost tarred and feathered him and ran Him out of town. The scripture says

they led Him to the top of a hill and were going to throw Him over. (Luke 4:30)

But Jesus knew who he was and what His mission was, so He continued on His way. . . to be condemned, crucified and resurrected.

For All of us!

So even if we are not welcome in our own town, like Jesus, we need to continue on our path and God will help us accomplish it.

Remember that we will not always be acknowledged or appreciated, but we must follow the path of Jesus as we live day-by-day. We all need to be ‘the other’ that shows the love of Jesus and welcomes others into the Kingdom of God.

Let us pray:

Mother of Wisdom,
open my ears.
What is that truth-teller
closest to me
trying to tell me
that I don’t want to hear?

I give thanks for my defensiveness,
for it is my clue
that someone has struck truth.

Give me wisdom to listen,
courage to hear,
humility to accept,
and grace to change.

Amen[1]

[1] Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “Listen”, Unfolding Light

Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Columbus OH; 30 January 2022

Take the First Step

John 2:1-11

Today we heard about the first miracle that Jesus performed in his ministry. It was one that he really did not want to do, but who can disobey your mother?

During his ministry, Jesus performed thirty-seven miracles:

  • He turned water into wine
  • 26 times he healed people
  • Twice he fed the multitudes
  • 4 time he saved the disciples on water
  • 4 times he raised people from the dead

That was amazing miracles in a little more than three years!

His ministry of miracles all began that afternoon at Cana, when a young couple were celebrating their wedding day. Cana was not even in Judea, it was a jerkwater town off the beaten path – there was no reason for them to be there. But most likely they had been invited to the wedding, which lasted seven days. And Jewish law was very strict about rules of hospitality, not only for the one extending the invitation, but those receiving it. So they were in Cana.

Mary, Jesus, and some of His disciples were dressed in their finery and enjoying the food and companionship and joy of the new couple. The feast was spread and the wine was served, and everyone was having a good time. In fact, such a good time that the wine jars were drained. The father of the bride was about to be extremely embarrassed – the scandal of running out of wine – a serious faux pas!

But in stepped Mary, who suggested to the wine steward that her son might have an answer to their problem. Jesus hesitated, but Mary insisted that the servants do whatever He might tell them to do. So He told them to fill six empty water jars and serve up their contents. When those contents were served, the water was gone and excellent wine was in its place, much better wine than had first been served.

On the surface, this seems like a little miracle, not quite up there with calming the raging storm or raising Lazarus from the dead or feeding the 5,000. But this was Jesus’ first miracle.

Not that he really wanted to do this – when Mary told him to fix the problem, he resisted, telling her

Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? (John 2:4)

We can imagine that he was having a good time with his disciples, and didn’t want to be bothered – or have attention drawn to Himself. But Mary paid no attention to His reluctance and ‘persuaded’ him as only a mother can do, to take care of the situation. I don’t know if she had to use that “mother’s look”, but Jesus finally did what she wanted.

It seems like a frivolous use of Jesus’ power, turning water into wine. It’s been the subject of a host of theological humor. Like the Baptist preacher who was caught with a load of moonshine whiskey. He claimed he was just hauling water. When confronted with the fact that it was whiskey rather than water, he exclaimed, “It’s a miracle. Our blessed Lord has done it again.”

But this first and “minor” miracle should not be taken lightly – it showed

  • who Jesus was. . .
  • who He would become . . .
  • what He would be . . .
  • what He could and would do.

It is interesting to note that no other gospel documented this miracle. To those writers, this miracle was considered insignificant, not even worth mentioning.

There is a part of this scripture that generally goes unnoticed:

Now there were set there six waterpots of stone, according to the manner of purification of the Jews, containing twenty or thirty gallons apiece. (John 2:6)

Seems pretty innocuous, doesn’t it. . . but it is significant to the story. The six waterpots were there because they had been used by the wedding guests to clean their hands and feet prior to being seated. Jewish law was extremely strict about cleanliness, so all the guests had used the water in these pots to clean their hands and feet – and now the pots were considered unclean! Yet, these were the very pots that Jesus used to turn the water into wine – violating all Jewish law for cleanliness.

Jesus transformed these pots from something unclean and forbidden into something clean and good.

When we look closely at this miracle, or as John identifies it—a ‘sign’, the fact that Jesus used water in dirty pots to reveal his glory catches our attention. In other gospel stories, Jesus used spit and mud to cure a blind man, loaves and fish to feed five thousand, and a wooden cross to save the world.

God seems to take particular delight in using the common and ordinary to glorify himself and to accomplish his purpose. We know that this is true not only in the Bible, but also in our everyday lives.

Think about it for a moment and you will see that this miracle was just the beginning of those miraculous things Jesus would do, culminating in His resurrection.

It is interesting that he was reluctant at first. He reminded Mary that

My hour has not yet come, (John 2:4)

Think about times when you were enjoying yourself with your friends and your mother insisted you do something for her. We have all had those moments when we wished she would just disappear. But like a good son, when Mary asked Jesus to intervene, in spite of his reluctance, he ultimately did what she told Him to do.

Most of us know the stories of Jesus’ earthly ministry. But we often miss little hints in the stories that tell us just how hard it was for Jesus to come to his ministry. At twelve He went to the temple in Jerusalem, to ‘His Father’s house’ where he began to reveal his awareness that He was the Son of God. After the death of Joseph, as the eldest son, he remained in Nazareth taking care of Mary and his brothers and sisters, who weren’t exactly happy to have the ‘Son of God’ as their half-brother/sister. And then there was his cousin, John the Baptist, wearing animal skins and eating only honey. He was out there baptizing everyone he could while they waited for the Messiah who would save them all. And later on, his own hometown scorned Him, saying

Nothing good could have come from Nazareth (John 1:46)

No wonder the Scripture said He was reluctant. He knew that this was the beginning of a path that would ultimately lead to his death. He knew that there was no turning back after this. People were watching him and this ‘minor’ miracle confirmed to his disciples and other followers that He was more than a rabbi, or a teacher. He was something special. . .

the Son of God,

the Messiah.

But Mary pushed him forward – made him leave the comfort of his anonymity and step forward into the world as the Son of God. She may not have known the extent of his ability to perform miracles, but she knew He was special and it was time for Him to claim that. I imagine that very few people at the wedding even knew what was going on – they were having too good a time. But the disciples who accompanied this itinerant preacher saw what happened and recognized who Jesus was and would become.

Just as Jesus was reluctant to take this first step, so are we reluctant to make even tiny steps in directions we feel called to take. We have lots of excuses:

•    I don’t have the time

•    I don’t know enough to teach Sunday School

•    I don’t have any professional voice training

•    No one wants to hear what I have to say

•    One person can’t make a difference

•    What difference does it make to a legislator what I think.

We may also be afraid. . .

scared that we will make mistakes

that we will ‘screw things up’. . .

that people will laugh or scorn or reject us.

Isn’t that where the miracle is? Jesus enters with us in our struggles just like he showed up at that small town wedding, assuring us that, yes, we are enough. Every time we gather around God’s table, every time we share what we have with others and don’t worry about ourselves, we participate in the abundant life and love of God, where there is always enough, and even more than is needed. The best stuff is just as available at the end as it was in the beginning.

Just as Jesus turned water into wine, Jesus works with ordinary people, like you and me, because he knows we have the potential to be transformed by his gospel into the ‘good stuff’- the best– by God’s transforming love. We are enough—and Jesus chooses us to work his miracles in the world today. That’s more than enough.

But each of us must follow the example of Jesus and step out to claim our place in this world. In our own little way, we are all miracles – miracles of birth, miracles of our love for one another, miracles who are willing to step out and take a risk.

Just as Jesus’ first miracle was not a spectacular, ground-shaking event, so our day-to-day lives may seem insignificant to each of us, but miraculous to others around us. You never know who is watching and gaining strength to also take a risk. You never know whose life may be changed by something you think is ordinary.

Let me give you an example:

About thirty years ago I was attending a church to help them become open and affirming. At the time my partner was dying of cancer and I was not in a good place. But the church was extremely supportive and helped me get through the ordeal. I was asked to give a testimony about what the church meant to me, so I did. After the service, a young gay man came up to me and thanked me – he was so despondent that he had intended to go home after church and kill himself. But my message had given him hope. I understand now that he is an accomplished photographer on the west coast.

So you never know what ‘miracle’ you can be for someone else.

This miracle at Cana was remembered and recorded not to say something about wine, but to say something about Jesus. It is Jesus who takes the ordinary, the tasteless, the common and transform it into something robust, hearty, joyful. The point is this: Jesus can and does transform us. In Him is all the fullness of God; in Him is life, and when He touches our lives, what is common, ordinary and flat becomes extraordinary.

No matter where we are, we need to remember that Jesus knows what we need and he will provide it, just as he changed the water into wine (although it took some prodding from Mary). Consider that Jesus may need some prodding from us to know, in our heart-of-hearts, what we are struggling with. This is the comfort that we find in today’s text.

The main miracle in this story is not the making of wine for a wedding celebration. Rather, it is the faith of the disciples. They saw the wine for what it was—a sign of Jesus’ godliness and divinity. The disciples saw and believed.

I wonder if there is someone here who has a need for God to step in a do a miracle in your life. You realize that God is not a vending machine, but you know He has the power to do what you need Him to do. You are willing to obey Him and let Him do His work His way. And You have no doubt in His ability to meet your need.

You just have to ask him. This is a long-standing biblical principle. Moses put it this way to God’s people thousands of years ago.

“I am giving you the choice between a blessing and a curse. A blessing, if you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today; but a curse, if you disobey these commands and turn away …” (Deuteronomy 11:6-8)

This principle applies to Jesus’ work in us: He does not do things for us that we can do ourselves. Miracles do not excuse us from carrying out our own responsibilities.

It’s time for us to take that step – to make a decision – take that risk. As followers of Jesus, we are not alone.

Jesus is always with us.

Let’s step out there and take a risk.

Let us pray:

Holy and righteous God, give us today the grace we need to share with those around us. As we live our everyday life, please help us see Jesus’ glory at work in ways we never have before. We don’t ask this for our entertainment or for our self-interest, but so that our faith may grow stronger and our Christian witness more powerful, to your glory. Amen.

    Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Columbus, OH; 16 January 2022

 

On Earth As It Is In Heaven

John 18:33-37

Today is Christ the King Sunday. Church junkies know that on the church calendar, this marks the last Sunday of the liturgical year, a calendar quite different from our January-December calendar. The liturgical year begins with Advent, followed by Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. Then we have ‘Ordinary Time,’ remembering the work of God and the life and ministry of Jesus. We travel from the Lord’s miraculous birth to his death and resurrection, and culminate the journey with our most basic affirmation of faith: 

Jesus Christ is Lord!

It is a way of wrapping up a year’s worth of worship by claiming again 

who and whose we are. 

We reiterate our mission – to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That is the kind of disciples that we are. We aren’t disciples of our own wisdom; we aren’t disciples following the winds of this world. We are disciples of Jesus Christ.

After listening to the scripture, it is a little disconcerting that we hear about Jesus’ trial before Pilate and upcoming execution when the real world is full of decorations, music, and sales centered around Christmas and, sometimes, the birth of Jesus. This is the Sunday when we make an abrupt change from His impending death to awaiting His birth. 

For a bit of history: in 1925, Pope Pius XI established the Feast of Christ the King as a direct response to the growing nationalism that was taking hold across the world. The First World War had just recently ended, fear was everywhere, and the time was ripe for the rise of tyrants. This Feast was established to reassert the sovereignty of Christ and the church over all forms of government, and to remind Christians of the fidelity and loyalty we owe to Christ. By his birth and death we have been made both adopted children of God, and future citizens and heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven. Christ the King Sunday is the parallel of the Super Bowl trophy or the Final Four in college basketball, or the last game of the World Series. The Feast was also a reminder to Mussolini and Hitler and other totalitarian governments that Jesus Christ is the only Sovereign King. Christ, our spiritual King and Ruler, rules by Truth and Love

In the scripture we heard Jesus respond when questioned by Pilate:

“My kingdom is not of this world. . .  my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36)

Many have interpreted this to mean that Jesus’ Kingdom is somewhere in Heaven and not relevant to this world; the values being very different from those of the current world. In other words, Jesus does not have to exercise the type of authority that seeks to be on top, which results in oppression, corruption of the judicial system, and precisely the kind of hypocrisy that Pilate exhibited in the interaction with Jesus. The values of Jesus’ Kingdom are so vastly different from those of this world that we often fail to understand them.

So, what is the Kingdom of God?

The Kingdom of God is a space. It exists in every home where parents and children love each other. It exists in every region and country that cares for its weak and vulnerable. It exists in every parish that reaches out to the needy.

The Kingdom of God is a time. It happens whenever someone feeds a hungry person, shelters the homeless, or shows care for the neglected. It occurs whenever we overturn an unjust law, or correct an injustice, or avert a war. It happens whenever people join in the struggle to overcome poverty, erase ignorance, and pass on the faith.

The Kingdom of God is in the past in the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth; it is in the present in the work of the church and in the efforts of many others to create a world of goodness and justice; it is in the future, reaching its completion in the age to come.

The Kingdom of God is a condition. Its symptoms are love, justice, and peace.”[1] A community in God’s care lives in radical love, joy, peace, truth, and righteousness.

Jesus lived doing his Father’s will and fulfilling his Father’s work. He taught values that were upside down to the way the world worked. Why? Because his Kingdom was a heavenly Kingdom. Because his goal was to bring Heaven’s glory to live in earthly people. He wanted people’s hearts to be changed and their lives to reflect the spirit of Heaven. Jesus wants our hearts — not so that he can conquer us, but to glorify us and make us ready for a home with him. Jesus is a king who never rose so high that he couldn’t see those who were below him. If we hunted for Jesus, we would look in places kings seldom go.

The piece of scripture that is not included in this week’s reading follows Jesus’ declaration of the Kingdom of Heaven when Pilate asks:

“What is truth?” (John 18:38)

When we quit following Jesus we get the very opposite of truth. 

  • Instead of love, we find hate.
  • Instead of justice, we find injustice. 
  • Instead of Godly community and relationships, we find unrighteousness.
  • Instead of grace and forgiveness, we find vengeance.

When we, as a community, decide that we know what is truth, we become divisive and struggle for power. We seek our own glory. We become known in the world as petty and hateful instead of as loving and compassionate.  

The Kingdom of God is God’s reign—not over a country or a group of people but over the whole of human history. This realm of God affirms what is good, faithful, and just in every age, and it corrects what is misguided, unjust, and wrong. It is not about a geographical country or a particular race or ethnicity. God’s realm does not settle on boundaries that we make, or the specific version of the faith that we practice. The reign of God is not about a sentimental vagueness that requires nothing of us except that we try to be nice. Nor is God’s realm a national or a political entity.

I apologize to those who feel this sermon is a little or way too long after you have heard it, but as a Deacon in the church of God, I felt this needed to be said and I needed to say it.

At least twice in my time preaching, I have felt compelled to rewrite part of my sermon at the last minute, because of current events. This is one of those times, particularly because the scripture centers on the Kingdom of God.

The verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial does not represent the Kingdom of God! We all know that if Kyle had been a black teenager, he may have never lived to see a courtroom, or if he did, he would have been found guilty on all charges and probably spent the rest of his life in prison.

The current environment in the United States is stacked against any people of color and for white males (and especially those professing white supremacy). Most people following the case knew what the outcome would be – we have seen it too many times since people started protesting the egregious persecution and murder of LGBTQs and persons of color by authorities.

Where have we lost the understanding and reverence for the ultimate commandment from Jesus:

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

– this is the fundamental premise of the Kingdom of God.

This injustice is representative of the nationalism present in the United States. The incident brought to the surface many of the issues that our country wrestles with – and all-too-often attempts to ignore –racial justice, white vigilantism, and gun violence. 

And the Rittenhouse trial is not the only injustice we are currently watching. Ahmaud Arbery was hunted down by two white supremacists, who swear ‘they were afraid for their lives’ by an unarmed, skinny young black boy. He had been spotted

trespassing through houses under construction in his area, something quite common when there is new construction. The men hunted Ahmaud down for five minutes in a pickup truck; he tried to protect himself when they caught him. He didn’t have a chance.

Surprisingly, or maybe not, the prosecutors in this case have complained to the judge that there are ‘too many black pastors’ at the trial and want them banned. Pastors who are there to support the family and possibly control the crowd.

We all remember the killing of George Floyd and the conviction of Deryk Chauvin – one of the few times that justice has been done. That justice came because members of the Kingdom of God reacted to the injustice and took to the streets. So much pressure was put on the justice system by Black Lives Matters and their allies that the usual white privilege could not withstand the pressure. 

People following the teachings of Jesus made a difference! We need to take action to right these wrongs and further the Kingdom of God on this earth, and particularly in our country.

I listened to a presentation at the 2020 Human Rights Award Performance by baritone Davóne Tines, singing his rendition of The Times They are NOT Changing.[2] He eloquently points at that unless we become active in these struggles, nothing is going to change, and we will not have another chance. We have to roll up our sleeves, make contacts with those in our sphere of influence so that we can make changes.

I encourage everyone of us to take what action we can; the Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations has tips and lists of organizations that we can join to work to overturn injustice. And we have local organizations right here in Columbus and Ohio that are actively supporting overturning white supremacy and fringe groups.

(End of rant!)

The values of Jesus’ Kingdom are so vastly different from those of this world that we often fail to understand them. The church, which says it does understand —and should—represent Jesus’ Kingdom, is here to serve in humility rather than to seek earthly power.

Let us take this opportunity to remind ourselves and our congregations that we serve a king who is not seeking power and glory. We who identify as the church should seek to engage in humble service to others. Everyone interested in seeking the truth will embrace the values of this other Kingdom, which contrasts sharply with a society that attempts to ‘win at all costs’. Those who seek power and prestige at the expense of others will reject the true Kingdom represented by Jesus.[3]

The question is whether we, each of us, will serve the government of this world or the Kingdom of God. 

Can we say that the government we serve is not of this world, but of Jesus? 

Does God’s Kingdom reside in our human hearts?

The challenge of the Kingdom of God is for each of us:

  1. To let God be God…in us
  2. To let God be God…in our church
  3. To let God be God…in our neighborhoods
  4. To let God be God…in our lives, our families, and our world.

To find meaning, peace, and purpose in our lives, we must keep asking ourselves, 

“What is Jesus telling us to do with our lives?” 

“What do we need to do to earn a place in the Kingdom of God?

When we ask and listen for the answer, we are experiencing the power of his Kingdom in our lives.  

As we plead in the Lord’s Prayer:

Thy Kingdom come.  Thy Will be done,  on earth as it is in Heaven.

Amen.                


[1] Gerald Darring, The Perspective Of Justice, Spiritual Reflections on Sunday Readings

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SN4t0Gr_bDM

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: 40th Anniversary Edition (Fortress Press, 2015)

 

Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Columbus, OH; 21 November 2021