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Yes! . . . Well, Maybe

Luke 9:51-62

As most of you know, this is my final Sunday at Saint John’s. According to the canons of the Diocese, I must leave when the new rector comes. After much prayer and tears, with the help of Father Stephen, I decided the most graceful way to leave would be at the end of the current liturgical year. I want to thank each and every one of you that has welcomed me into the parish and made me feel like I belonged here. I will forever cherish my time here – you are extraordinary people and your future is unlimited.

So, as my last sermon, I want to assure you of God’s love and challenge you to take the next steps to grow as people and a congregation. You knew, based on my prior sermons, that I couldn’t leave without giving you a challenge and something to niggle in your brain. I hope this gives you some cause for thought.

We heard in the 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, buts. . .’

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

Jesus knew that there are times when we must simply move forward. His face was ‘set towards Jerusalem’; the city where he would share a last meal with his disciples; where 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 all of 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. Not for anything. Not even those very good things which meant so much before. There is no turning back.

So we are urged to ‘set our faces towards Jerusalem.’ Every single day we must have our ears, our eyes, our hearts open to answer Jesus’ call, knowing that 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 in order to take on a different set. Jesus calls us to unpack and leave behind nationalism, and racism, and social norms to embrace a kingdom that includes all people of all races and colors and languages from all over the world.

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

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.

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

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

Jesus wants people who will walk in his footsteps daily, people who will be with him who mirror his compassion and his 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 in your life.

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

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

The three men whom 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 that many people are not suffering from some of its symptoms. We all have had situations where our heart desired to do something, but the flesh had a thousand reasons why we couldn’t.

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 come to church regularly, BUT ‘Sunday is the only day you can sleep in’?

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

Following Jesus is not easy, it means we have to re-organize our lives so that we can make it happen. We have to change our priorities and forego some things, but it is the way we have been called to follow. Can you hear Christ calling you now? Saying in the still quiet of your heart; “Drop everything that is holding you back and follow, follow me to Jerusalem, follow me to Love.”

 
In Saying Farewell
So, as I leave, I know that there will be a hole in my heart that you all occupy; this is one of the hardest things I have had to do, and I know that I will be grieving for a long time. So many people have sent me notes or expressed their feelings for me; it is bittersweet and touches my heart and soul. And although I am leaving, I want to leave you with these thoughts and prayer:

God,
You know it is going to be OK,
But too often it feels like it isn’t,
People come and go from our lives,
Sometimes friendships just slip away and fade with time,
Sometimes we move or they move,
But then there is death.

People leave our lives
and we don’t get a say,
Nor are we often prepared.
When they go,
We know deep down that it is going to be OK
Or at least we tell ourselves that
Not really feeling it,
But holding it in hope and faith.

We are thankful of the love that is shared,
Even though it leaves a hole in our lives,
When the people we share it with are not there to share it with.
We are grateful of the legacy of moments and memories,
Times which are cherished and treasured,
Which sustain us in connection with the ones that we have lost.
May we find time and courage to constructively give expression to our feelings.

May we have the patience that is needed to sustain ourselves until a new normal can be found.
May we hold the hope and faith that carries us,
Through the darkest of moments,
Until we can come at joy and happiness,
And bear the shadows of pain and sorrow which come as well.
Sustain and uphold us,
Comfort us in ways beyond our understanding.

For it will be OK in time.
We just need to wait for it to be so.
Amen.[1]

 
[1]      Adapted from Jon Humphries, “Mike’s Prayer”, The Welcome Table
 
 

Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 30 June 2019

I Choose to Follow Jesus

Luke 9:51-62

We heard in the Gospel reading that Jesus was heading toward Jerusalem with a group of his disciples. He was determined to go to Jerusalem, and wasn’t going to let anything stand in his way. Do you know why he was headed to Jerusalem?

(pause)

You are right. Jesus was headed to Jerusalem where he knew he would be arrested, tried, and killed. But then he would rise from the grave to give us all eternal life if we just follow him.

Jesus always had a lot of people following him wherever he went, because they wanted to see this person that they had heard so much about. As everyone was walking, a man said to Jesus,

“I will follow you, Jesus, wherever you go.” Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes to sleep in. Birds build nests. But I have no place to call my own. Are you sure this is the life you want?” (Luke 9:57-58)

He wanted the man to understand that following him might not always be fun and easy. He was not going to be staying in four-star hotels, and eat at the best restaurants; he was going to suffer and eventually be killed.

As they walked along, Jesus turned to another man in the group and said,

“Follow me.” But that person replied, “I’ve got lots of things to do first, and then I’ll follow you.” (Luke 9:61)

Every time Jesus asks someone to ‘follow him’, the person said he would – BUT then offers excuses as to why he couldn’t go right then.

We all know that we really want to follow Jesus, but we seem to always have an excuse for everything. Making excuses is not new. People even made excuses in Jesus’ day.

Jesus was calling those who would give up everything — family, friends, their job — and follow him. What he got instead were excuses.

Do you have excuses?

  • If your mother asks you to clean your room, do you think of a thousand reasons why you can’t do it right then.
  • If you are supposed to carry out the garbage, doesn’t the current TV program you are watching seem more important than carrying out the stinky garbage!
  • If you haven’t done your homework, do you tell the teacher ‘my dog ate my paper’?

Even adults give excuses for things they don’t want to do right away!

Jesus is still calling us today saying, “Follow me!” He asks us:

“I’m calling you to proclaim the kingdom of God. Isn’t that important work?” Jesus said, “You’ve got to commit to me fully, or the kingdom of God might not be for you.” (Luke 9:62)

Wouldn’t it be sad if we thought other things were more important than following the teachings of Jesus? If we made so many excuses to Jesus that we would not be a member of the Kingdom of God?

That would be horrible!

So, I ask you, will you follow Jesus, or will you make excuses?

Jesus wants us to follow him, to have eternal life, and show God’s love to the world. Are we going to follow?

Or are we going to make excuses why we can’t ‘right now’?

I have a paper that I want each of you to take home – it is called ‘I Choose to Follow Jesus’. It has things that happen to you every day. What you need to do is answer what you would do in each situation if you are following Jesus.

What would you do at school, at church, at home, when someone is mean to you, or when you are mean to someone else. The last line is what you would do if you follow Jesus. When something happens, remember to write down (or have your parents help you) what you did or what you should have done if you were following Jesus.

Let us pray:

Dear God, when Jesus calls us to follow him, may we not offer excuses. Instead, let us do what we must to follow Jesus. Amen.

In Saying Farewell
As most of you know, this is my final Sunday at Saint John’s. According to the canons of the Diocese, I must leave when the new rector comes. After much prayer and tears, with the help of Father Stephen, I decided the most graceful way to leave would be at the end of the current liturgical year. I want to thank each and every one of you that has welcomed me into the parish and made me feel like I belonged here. I will forever cherish my time here – you are extraordinary people and your future is unlimited.

So, as I leave, I know that there will be a hole in my heart that you all occupy; this is one of the hardest things I have had to do, and I know that I will be grieving for a long time. So many people have sent me notes or expressed their feelings for me; it is bittersweet and touches my heart and soul. And although I am leaving, I want to leave you with these thoughts and prayer:

God,
You know it is going to be OK,
But too often it feels like it isn’t,
People come and go from our lives,
Sometimes friendships just slip away and fade with time,
Sometimes we move or they move,
But then there is death.

People leave our lives
and we don’t get a say,
Nor are we often prepared.

When they go,
We know deep down that it is going to be OK
Or at least we tell ourselves that
Not really feeling it,
But holding it in hope and faith.

We are thankful of the love that is shared,
Even though it leaves a hole in our lives,
When the people we share it with are not there to share it with.
We are grateful of the legacy of moments and memories,
Times which are cherished and treasured,
Which sustain us in connection with the ones that we have lost.

May we find time and courage to constructively give expression to our feelings.
May we have the patience that is needed to sustain ourselves until a new normal can be found.
May we hold the hope and faith that carries us,
Through the darkest of moments,
Until we can come at joy and happiness,
And bear the shadows of pain and sorrow which come as well.

Sustain and uphold us,
Comfort us in ways beyond our understanding.
For it will be OK in time.
We just need to wait for it to be so.

Amen.[1]
 

[1]      Adapted from Jon Humphries, “Mike’s Prayer”, The Welcome Table

 

Rev deniray mueller, Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 30 June 2019

WHO or WHAT is The Holy Trinity?

John 16:12-15

As you know, Bishop Price was scheduled to make a visitation today, and I usually accompany him when there is not a deacon present. Unfortunately, Bishop Price became ill and has just been released from the hospital. I don’t know any details, but it appears he will have surgery in the near future. I am asking that we all hold and Mariann in our prayers.

This service is going to be a little different than ones you are used to because as a Deacon, I can’t consecrate the host. But, by permission of Bishop Price, and because you have reserved sacrament, I will be able offer a slight modification of the Eucharist. Thank you for being understanding as we proceed.

I have to thank you, Whit, who managed to print out a sermon for me. We can thank the wonders of modern technology that I could pull up a sermon from the cloud and he could print it! And thanks to your organist, Sheryl Wise, who doodled on the organ until I could get it together.

I speak to you in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen

One of the first sermons I delivered Saint John’s Worthington, without realizing when I agreed to preach, was Trinity Sunday in 2011. I have to tell you, of all the Sundays in the year, this is the one that makes even the most seasoned priest quake in their shoes. This is probably the most difficult to preach on because the concept of the Trinity and the concept of ‘three-in-one’ is hard enough to understand for those trained in theology.

There is an inside joke among clergy:

When Father Applegate was figuring out the preaching rota for Saint John’s this year, I told him I would preach on every other Sunday on the calendar, but NOT on Trinity Sunday – I didn’t have anything else to say! He is really going to get a chuckle out of today!

Today is Trinity Sunday. Since Pope John XXII, the western church has set this Sunday aside for reflection on the tremendous mystery of the Trinity. When we sing the words of one of our best-known hymns,

Holy, Holy, Holy, we sing, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”

Praising the Holy Trinity has been going on for almost 1690 years since Emperor Constantine called 317 bishops from all over the Christian world to settle the question of the divinity of Jesus Christ in 325 CE. They settled the question of whether Christ was simply another great prophet and teacher — even a high-ranking angel from God — or was he the divine Son of God, co-equal and co-eternal with God?

The church fathers had spent hundreds of years trying to reach agreement on the doctrine of the Trinity. And we, as preachers, are supposed to pull something ‘out of the hat’ that explains the Trinity as a matter of fact. I will say, since 2011, I have been studying and researching, bound and determined that I would purposely select this Sunday and give my best try at explaining the Trinity. . .

may I leave you with some understanding and no more confusion than you had before.

I have come to the conclusion, after almost eight years of studying, that we CAN NOT fully explain the Trinity… we can only speak of things that we can understand that might suggest the Trinity.

Did you know that Trinity Sunday is the only Sunday in the entire Christian Calendar which celebrates a doctrine; and it is an unfinished doctrine, a mystery that is not completed or understood. And many would say that there is reason that only one doctrine is celebrated; because nobody wants to hear a sermon on a doctrine.

But today is Trinity Sunday — what on earth could I say about the Trinity that was new?! How do I even begin to explain the mystery? So, it came to me — I CAN’T explain the mystery. No one can. No one has the ability to fathom the mystery, so we express it in symbols — and we look around the church and find Trinitarian symbols.

A doctrine by its nature is an abstraction – never referenced directly in scripture; others still, would state that the Trinity is the most unattainable doctrine of them all.

There are two concrete facts about the Trinity:

  • There is no reference in the Bible to “Trinity”
  • There is no reference in the Bible to the Triune God.

The Trinity has been explained in many ways from very heavy philosophical ideas to picture metaphors like a three-leaf clover. With any of these, it is important to remember that none of them describes God in his very being or essence. That cannot be done. The Trinity is a statement of how God relates, not how God is. When it comes to our relating to God, we can’t pin God down to one thing or one way. When we consider one way to view God there is always another way. But why three, as in the Trinity? Who knows? But we do know that just as we can’t pin God down to one of our simplistic ideas, we also can’t pin God down to three either, or any one of the three.

Throughout the centuries, Christians have striven to express this triune understanding of the oneness of God’s in various ways. The underlying belief is that God’s very being is reflected in his creation.

  • Augustine spoke of the Lover (Father), Beloved (Son), and the Love shared between the two (Spirit)
  • John of Damascus was one among many early church fathers who spoke of water that bubbled up from a spring, flowed into a river, and reached its source in the ocean. Water is one, yet spring, river, and ocean are distinctive expressions of it.
  • Martin Luther spoke of the root, trunk, and fruit of a tree as the living God traceable in his creation. He spoke of iron in a blacksmith’s shop that would glow, burn, and place its stamp on wood.
  • The Desert Fathers (the two Gregorys and Basil) compared the members of the Trinity to the source of light (Father), the light itself that illumines (Son), and the warmth when you feel the light (Spirit)

Can we be like God? Remember, we are the image of God. In that image we also cannot be pinned down to one way of relating. We are all many things. What wonderful surprises we all are, just as God is always a wonderful surprise.   God is everywhere; look at the beautiful sunset. God is there. Look at the home destroyed by a tornado. God is there. God is in the tears of joy and in the tears of sorrow.

St. Augustine, one of the most astute thinkers the Christian Church has ever produced, was walking along the seashore one day while pondering the doctrine of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He seemed to hear a voice saying, “Pick up one of the large sea shells there by the shore.” So he picked it up. Then the voice said, “Now pour the ocean into the shell.” And he said, “Lord, I can’t do that.” And the voice answered, “Of course not. In the same way, how can your small, finite mind ever hold and understand the mystery of the eternal, infinite, Triune God?”

The Holy Trinity is not a debatable doctrine: it is an icon, a window into God. It is a parable, a paradox that invites us to behold the mystery of the Divine. All these efforts to help us in our understanding of God do not explain him in completeness, they keep us mindful of a mystery – an essence that comes through to us in a tri-fold fashion. We have the Trinity, the Three in One.

God the Creator: called Father, not because God is a male – God is beyond all gender, male or female – nor because the first person of the Godhead is like a father. We call the first person Father because this is the Father of the Son and the source of the Spirit. We call the first person of the Godhead “Father” because that is what Jesus called him and taught us to call him. Through Jesus, the One Jesus called “Abba Father,” is also “Our Father” – who is the source of all that has ever been, is, or will ever be created.

God the Redeemer: we call the second person of the Godhead “Son” because he comes from the Father, was sent by God to us, to be God with us, to live out his life with us and for us, as one of us. He was not a hologram; he was flesh and blood. He was the greatest gift from God who saved the world, all of creation, all of US, through His living, teaching, sacrifice and resurrection. We know Jesus as the Son not only because he was of the flesh, but as the Gospel of John confesses, because of his life lived out in obedience to his Father (John 4:34).

God the Sanctifier: When Jesus prepared to return to his Father, he promised another Advocate – the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit–the presence of God would be with us (John 15:26). The Holy Spirit brings new birth from above, to transform, renew, sustain, to make us children of God. It is the Spirit’s work to make the bread Jesus’ body, and the wine Jesus’ blood to draw us into Christ’s risen. The Holy Spirit is the wireless connection between us and the Son, and us and the Father, because they are “hard-wired” together in the one essence we call ‘God’.

The Father is not the Son or the Spirit, but the Father, creator of heaven and earth. The Son is neither the Father nor the Spirit, but God in human flesh, sent as the Savior to redeem the world through divine love. The Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son, but God’s presence with us today, the means by which you and I come to experience and know God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit – three distinct means of God being over us and above us, with us and for us, and in and among us, – three distinct relationships with one another, who are nonetheless one in essence. What one wills all three will, what one does all three do–they work in concert, the three playing their different parts–three voices emerging from the same string at the same time, forming a trio of melodies that harmonize into one glorious sound, in order to accomplish the same purpose–as indivisible in their work as they are in their being–One God in three co-equal persons.

The Trinity is even a statement of our faith: God created us, saved us, and sanctifies us. God invites us back to Him, back to the Creator, back to the Redeemer, back to the Sanctifier. God calls us home, for we are created in God’s image, and God’s image and Spirit are within us. God is the Trinity. God is Unity. God is One. And God wants to share that Oneness in love. Within God, and with each and all of us, God wants to be ONE….WITH US!

This is the mystery of God we celebrate today: God over and above us, God for and with us, God in and among us, One God, the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, the God who in the waters of baptism makes us his own, the God who meets us at table to give us the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation, the God who is in us and among us, using us to share the good news of his love and purpose for us all.

In the Nicaean Creed we will recite, we affirm that we believe in One God, the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

It would be appropriate for you to say, when trying to understand the Trinity:

“Why bother? I have enough problems with things that I understand, let alone things that I don’t understand.”

Surprisingly, there are THREE good reasons why we should attempt to understand the mystery of the Trinity.

The first reason is that Jesus revealed the Trinity to us. The existence of the Father, of himself, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, whom He and the Father sent forth upon the apostles. Jesus came and lived among us to teach us, to show us how to live and how to love, He worked miracles and died for our sins and rose from the dead to show us the way to eternal life. So whatever Jesus revealed to us, He revealed for a reason and it is important for us to pay attention to it and try to understand it as best we can.

Secondly, while we cannot grasp the idea of one God – three persons – each of them God, we can recognize that the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are the perfect model of harmony and unity, a community of relationship, so perfectly intertwined that you cannot tell where one begins and the other ends.

The third and most important reason is that in the first chapter of Genesis, humankind, you and I, are created in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, since Jesus has revealed to us the essence of God as perfect unity, harmony, community and relationship, then the very core of our creation is a call to perfect harmony, community and relationship. This is the real challenge living in a society where individualism is promoted. Nonetheless, we are called to expand our circle of relationship to include more and more people.

We are called to worship the One who created the world. We are called to worship the One who loved the world enough to come into the world and invite us into relationship. We are called to worship the One who comes as Holy Spirit, blowing where it will. This is the Holy Trinity: a mystery we catch glimpses of as we seek to know and love.

A Blessing for Trinity Sunday
In this new season may you know the presence of the God who dwells within your days, the mystery of the Christ who drenches you in love, the blessing of the Spirit who bears you into life anew.

Amen.

Delivered at Trinity Episcopal Church, Newark, OH; 16 June 2019

Even Me, Lord?

John 13:1-17

I want to share with you some prepared thoughts I had which I think are important. But first I want to acknowledge, for all of us, the deep sorrow the Christian and entire world is feeling now due to the fire and desecration of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. For those of you lucky enough to have visited there, you know that it is a structure that is a man-made homage to God, eternity, and the human spirit. It has become an icon of civilization and a tribute to beauty and the sacred that we thought was timeless. As we remove from the altar this evening the linens, flowers and cover the cross, as the lights go out, and the music dies away, we are reminded again that all of the beauty and love in this world comes to us from God, and without God, the world would be a wretched place. It is with the strength of God in our lives that we are able to rebuild, repair, and renew each day, and so shall it be with Notre Dame.

We shall all, no matter the individual faith beliefs, help to rebuild it and restore its beauty to our world.

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

Most people, even non-Christians, have heard of Good Friday and Easter – the last two days of what is called the Paschal Triduum. But most people don’t know much about this important Thursday observance. “Maundy Thursday” comes from “mandatum novum” meaning “new commandment” referring to the 13th chapter in the Gospel of John, which describes Jesus hosting a meal for his disciples (now known as “The Last Supper”) after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It describes how, in the middle of that meal, Jesus got up from the table, wrapped a towel around his waist, and then started washing the feet of his disciples. He ended this loving and servile act by giving the “new mandate” to

“love one another.” (John 13:34)

Maundy Thursday is awkward and often ignored because, frankly, who wants to be reminded that Jesus humbled himself to do the task that servants and slaves did? We want to celebrate him as the risen king and lord of creation. Who wants to be reminded that Jesus lived out the truth that the ‘first must be last’ (Mark 9:35), and even now – as then – he is willing to touch us where we’re most vulnerable and where the dirt in our lives can be seen?

Who wants to be reminded of the tawdriness in our lives at all?

Who does not shrink from being intimately seen and known in our most wounded self by another?

Who wants to break bread and commune with people who truly know us at our deepest and most broken level?

Jesus’ first disciples balked when he washed their feet – “What are you doing? That’s for slaves to do! We can’t let you do this!” Jesus answered,

“Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” (John 13:8)

To paraphrase,

“Unless you let me do this, unless you let me humble myself, unless you let me do something that you think is shameful; unless you let me embrace you in your shame, you cannot truly share my life, my mission, and my love”.

And so now, if we don’t let Jesus into our lives where we’re truly most vulnerable, ashamed, and broken, we don’t let Jesus into our lives at all.

The love of God, as we learned from Jesus, is unconditional, . . .

just as we are.

To share in his life, to be fully followers of Jesus, we are called to love ourselves and others in that way too. . .

unconditionally.

Are we willing to accept that Jesus loves us totally, regardless of our failings, no matter what dirt we may be wearing? Can we remember that he suffers when we suffer? Can we fully accept that our pettiness, anger and violence hurt him deeply, as it hurts all humanity? Can we fully comprehend, that no matter what, his love has redeemed us and through his suffering and example, we are assured that with him we have eternal life?

Would you pray with me a prayer by Presbyterian Minister Rev Erin Counihan:

Almighty One,

Before I get lost,
In this night of false belief,
This night of cheap faith,
This night when my real is exposed, Along with my bare feet.
Before I give in.
Before I give up.
Before I walk away.
In silent complicity.

It’s obnoxious, I know,
but would you, please,
feed me.
Fill me.
Hope in me.
Give me strength.
Share your grace.
Share your all.
With me.
(Even tonight.)

Please.

If you’ll help me
I promise to try to trust you enough to believe,
to really believe in your wild and radical love
that it might even be for me
in a very real way,
and to let you hold this sin of mine.
The one I like to carry because I think I deserve its weight,
its punishing load should be forever shaking my arms.

So if you’ll help me
I promise to try to trust and believe you can really be that wonderful
for me too.
AMEN.[1]
 
[1]       Rev Erin Counihan, Oak Hill Presbyterian Church, St. Louis, MO

 
Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 18 April 2019

If We Are But Willing

Luke 13:31-35

We have heard readings the last few weeks known at the ‘Travel or Journey Narratives’; chronicling Jesus’ movement throughout the country, headed to Jerusalem for his crucifixion. He is still in Galilee, and appears to have increasingly caught the attention of the Jewish officials.

In Luke 9:51, Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem where he knew that he would face opposition from religious leaders and eventually death (Luke 9:22). Along the way, he demonstrates the presence of God’s kingdom by casting out demons and healing the sick. Crowds of people from Galilee, Judea, and even Jerusalem followed Jesus along his journey, wanting to see this extraordinary man.

We hear in the Gospel that Jesus refers to Herod as

“that fox”  (Luke 13:32).

This is an allegorical 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 at the grocery store, or cooked and ready to eat from the Colonel at KFC. In Jesus’ time, however, everyone knew chicken’s behavior. For thousands of years, they were raised in the backyard, or even in the house. They watched them every day. They had watched hens react to impending threat. For instance, when a fox first came into view, the hen started to bring her chicks under the shelter of her wings. If the fox got too close, the hen launched 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 he 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 like 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. When anyone approaches the river, she will gather her little brood together, and move them further out into the river. If I get closer to get 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 in order to protect her offspring. And if you have ever been attacked by a Canadian goose, you know she means business!

Jesus’ lament is the cry of a mother who is worried to death about not only Jerusalem, but about all of us. Like a mother, Jesus sees far more clearly the danger we are in. Jesus knows we are prone to go off on our own, leaving his protective wings, to seek our own desires and adventure. And like a mother hen, Jesus chases after us.

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 a 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 disconcerting for some. Most of us have been raised with a patriarchal view of God; we regularly use the male pronoun in place of God. It is part of what we’ve heard and known since we were young. 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 like?

One of the popular images of Jesus is that he is a man who can do anything – walk on water; turn a couple 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.

“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)

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

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 wills. Jesus is powerless to do that. We have to be willing!

We need to remember this about Jesus:

  • He began His ministry by being hungry, yet He is the Bread of Life.
  • Jesus ended His earthly ministry by being thirsty, yet He is the Living Water.
  • Jesus was weary, yet He gives rest.
  • Jesus paid tribute, yet He is the King.
  • Jesus was accused of having a demon, yet He cast out demons.
  • Jesus wept, yet He wipes away our tears.
  • Jesus was sold for thirty pieces of silver, yet He redeemed the world.
  • Jesus was brought as a lamb to the slaughter, yet He is the Good Shepherd.
  • Jesus died, yet by His death He destroyed the power of death.

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”

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:

Thank you, Jesus, for always being here for us, even when we shun your love and sacrifice. Please continue to call us to be sheltered by you as one of God’s children. May we love one another as you love us.

Amen.
 
 
Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington & Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH, 17 March 2019

“Do Not Be Afraid”

Luke 1:39-55

This is the fourth Sunday of Advent, and we just heard a gospel reading foretelling the conception of Jesus – just two days before we celebrate His birth.

The timing of this gospel reading often confuses people – why do we hear about Mary being called to be the mother of Jesus just days before she gives birth?

This Gospel is read because we are in Advent – a time of anticipation of the birth of Jesus. We have heard in the Old Testament of the coming of the birth on the first Sunday of Advent, about preparing the way in the first and second Sundays of Advent. And last Sunday we heard about John the Baptist foretelling the coming of Jesus. This Sunday we hear about how this man, Jesus, was to come into the world, born of a young, unmarried Jewish woman – one who was told by the Angel Gabriel:

You will conceive in your womb and bear a son. . . (Luke 1:31)

Gentlemen, you will have to bear with us for a few minutes:

Ladies, close your eyes and think back to when you were twelve or thirteen. I don’t know about you, but knowing about the intimate details of marriage and pregnancy was not in my realm of reality.

According to the Jewish tradition of the time, Mary was between twelve and thirteen when she was betrothed to Joseph. Probably she was living in the house of Joseph, but their marriage was not to take place for another year. Part of the ritual was for the two to live in the same house, getting to know each other, and possibly for Mary to learn the likes and dislikes of her betrothed. . .  from her mother-in-law.

Unlike her cousin, Elisabeth, who had yearned for years for a child, Mary was only betrothed and young enough to be the daughter of Elisabeth. So the appearance of Gabriel was not an answer to a long-spoken prayer. She was not ready to have a baby yet. But, Mary’s time and plans were not God’s time and plans. God was re-aligning lives and upsetting schedules to do His work.

Think about how astonished and, probably, frightened you would have been if an angel visited you with this news. But Mary accepted the reassurance from Gabriel when he said

‘do not be afraid’ (Luke 1:30)

– talk about faith! But not blind faith, because Mary questioned Gabriel about how this was going to happen. She wanted to understand what the Lord had in store for her, how all of this was going to come to be.

Here is a very young girl, facing what could be a very unpleasant time in her life with the rejection of her family, her betrothed and her townspeople, certainly not a candidate for marriage to one who is not the father. And her story about an angel appearing —- come on now!

But the Angel Gabriel said:

‘do not be afraid’. (Luke 1:30)

What could she say to her future husband and his family in light of Jewish teachings and culture of 2000 years ago? And the news from the angel saying her life would never be the same again?

But the Angel Gabriel said:

‘do not be afraid’ (Luke 1:30)

In spite of all those things, Mary’s faith was so strong that she replied:

‘I am the Lord’s Servant’. (Luke 1:38)

As soon as she saw Elisabeth she knew it was true; all of it. Seeing Elisabeth, she was aware of how different they were. Elizabeth’s child would be seen by all as a blessing from God. Elisabeth would be praised, the stigma of her barrenness finally lifted.

To be sure, Elisabeth’s pregnancy was a miracle but it was not unheard of. Mary had grown up hearing stories of women like Elisabeth, Hannah and Sara. Mary knew hers was different.

An unexpected, miraculous birth wasn’t the same thing as a virgin birth. For Mary, as soon as she started to show, it would be different: a young girl, engaged, suddenly pregnant, with no ring on her finger, no father in sight and her fiancé none the wiser. That invited more than just a stigma. She could be stoned to death.

Miraculously, and beyond all physical laws of human existence, God created life
Inside her.
From nothing.

But who is really nothing?

In the same way, she thought, God created the heavens and the earth: from nothing.
In the same way God created the sun and the sea and the stars.
In the same way God created His beloved children.
From nothing.

As though what she carried within her was creation itself.
The start of a new beginning.

To everything.

For everyone.

People throughout history have chosen to follow their own wisdom and paths, rather than listening to God’s truth and God’s wisdom. When faced with the truth of God, we often are reluctant or just plain terrified. But Mary somehow knew that God was with her; she would not be alone, but had the presence of God within her and surrounding her.

So she said, ‘I am. . . your servant’.

Are we, like Mary, after all is said and done, able to say

‘I am the Lord’s Servant’, (Luke 1:38)?

knowing that we may also face things in life that are unexplainable, confusing, hazardous and unpleasant? Do we have the faith to submit ourselves to God’s will?

Why did God choose Mary? Why does God choose us to do different things in our lives? I think it is because we are willing to say ‘yes’ and trust and be faithful servants, even when we are afraid. If you remember, every time God sent an angel down, that person was said to be afraid. The first thing the angel always said is

‘be not afraid’.

God understands our uncertainty, our reluctance, our feeling of unworthiness and assures us of His love and support. And in each case, despite their fears, the people have trusted and said, em>‘Yes Lord’. Because God called them and they trusted God despite their fears – they responded in faith.

Are we willing to be faithful and open to God and his promises?

Are we willing to let the Christ child into our hearts and trust the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us?

Imagine what could happen in our lives and the lives of others if we are willing to step out in faith and say ‘Yes Lord’. If we are to be like Mary, we must be willing to sing out with enthusiasm and say ,‘Yes Lord’.

We are waiting in anticipation for the birth of the Christ child, this fourth Sunday of Advent. The next few days are going to be ones of celebration – but also filled with stress. What a great time to say every morning:

‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord’. (Luke 1:38)

  • When you are traveling, and the kids are bickering with each other, what would it mean to say
  • ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord’?

  • Very late on Christmas Eve, when ‘some assembly required’ toys are in 200 pieces and the instructions are beyond comprehension, what would it mean to say
  • ‘Here I am, servant of the Lord’?

  • When we are faced with financial problems, mortgages, college for the kids, your own job, what would it mean to say
  • ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord?’

  • When we find holiday festivities depressing and sad because of family and personal problems or loss, can we still say:
  • ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord?’

Can we trust the message of Angel Gabriel:

‘do not be afraid.’ (Luke 1:30)

Can we keep saying these words.

“Here I am, servant of the Lord”, (Luke 1:38)

out of faith and comfort, and hopefully, out of habit? Can we say these words as a prayer to grow as faithful disciples, unsure at times what we are supposed to do in this world? God cares about what happens in each moment of our lives. God invites us to live in love, peace and grace and know that we are never alone in this world.

God is inviting us to reach out and minister to others. Most of us will never be asked to do something as wonderful and fearful as Mary. But, in reality, it is the small everyday things in our lives that make all the differences. Most of the problems in the world happen because we do not fulfill our part in our partnership with God and say ‘yes’.

“Here I am, servant of the Lord”, (Luke 1:38)

Like Mary, we are called to be partners with God. Accepting that challenge and privilege is what it means to obey God and walk faithfully with God in love and trust.

What is God inviting you to say ‘yes’ to?

Be not afraid – walk in faith and trust.

We are reminded by angels and prophets and even Jesus at least 365 times in the Bible:

‘do not be afraid’

Speak with faith and trust:

‘I am the Lord’s Servant’. (Luke 1:38)

Let us pray:

Creator of all, when we consider your servant Mary, what we see is a humility and obedience that is so often lacking in our own lives. As we hear your Word again, and consider the one through whose body you entered this world, remind us of the meaning of humility and grant us a confidence of faith that knows your promises to us are always fulfilled. Guide us so that we are able to say:

‘I am the Lord’s Servant’. (Luke 1:38)

Amen.
 
 
Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington & Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 23 December 2018

When Is Enough, Enough?

Mark 10:17-31

Our Father, we thank you for your Word and for the eternal truths that guide us day by day. We thank you most of all for the living Word, Jesus Christ, and the sureness of his presence. Teach us how to turn unto you so that your thoughts may be our thoughts, and your ways our ways. Amen.

We hear in the gospel that a rich young man asked Jesus how he could be assured that he would go to Heaven. He was a very successful young man, having been very fortunate in his business dealings, and was probably a paragon of virtue in the society. In fact, the equivalent scripture in Luke 18:18-23 tells us

“he was a man of great wealth, having an abundance of earthly possessions that exceeds normal experience, and a ruler”

He was a very observant Jew, living according to the commandments of the Torah, remarking to Jesus that

“Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” (Mark 10:20)

So, one has to wonder why he wanted an assurance from Jesus that he would go to Heaven. He seemed to be sitting on top of the world. What did he feel he was missing?

Then came the shocker! Jesus lovingly told him

“You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)

Was Jesus really asking him to go from a very wealthy, respectable member of the community to what amounts to a beggar – bereft of all his wealth and stature. Did he have to give up everything – all those possession and ‘good’ things he had worked so hard to accumulate? Well, this was just too much for him; he went away disconsolate and dejected.

You may recall Saint Francis of Assisi did exactly that. Born the first son of a wealthy and privileged textile merchant and landowner, he was destined to inherit the business, the wealth, all the power. As a youth, he was a rowdy drunkard and wanted to become a knight, a man of war. Through several sobering experiences, including a year’s imprisonment after being captured in a war against neighboring Perugia, Francis began to change. He kept hearing the call of God telling him to “rebuild my church”. Finally, in 1203, in a dramatic confrontation with his father in the town square of Assisi, Francis took off all his fine clothing, gave them to his father, and walked away to serve the poor and win people to a new vision of the church. Clothed only in a wool tunic and sandals, he traveled by foot to villages and towns, caring for lepers, and winning followers for Christ. He chose to remain a deacon to better bring the message of God to the people. He had twelve disciple-like followers and by his death he was already considered a saint. His love of nature and animals earned him the title “God’s Fool” by many. He was the first person ever to show signs of ‘the stigmata’, and after his death in 1224, immediately was canonized!

The Franciscan Order developed from his ministry, and his burial site at the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi is one of the most inspiring places I have ever had the privilege to visit.

So, today, should we sell everything that we own and give it to the poor just to assure our place in Heaven? Perhaps we should look at this teaching in light of the culture of today. We have all accumulated things in our lives that make it comfortable for us and our families and friends. We want to assure that those within our circle have every need that they require, so that their lives will be secure and comfortable, and they can achieve those things they want in their lives. But, if we sell everything and give aid the poor, wouldn’t we be abandoning our families and friends, shirking our responsibility as parents and citizens?

So, what does Jesus mean by ‘everything’ in this scripture? We automatically think He means all of our worldly possessions in exchange for our heavenly reward. Should we become like Saint Francis? But let’s look at this in a different manner. Maybe Jesus is really saying that we should rid ourselves of those things that do not bring ‘goodness’ and positive attachments in our lives. We all have habits, behaviors that we know are not good for us; frivolous, unnecessary; let us consider that these are the ‘things’ we should rid ourselves of.

Martha Bolton and Phil Callaway, in their book It’s Always Darkest Before the Fridge Door Opens, tell about strolling through a mall one day laughing at all the things in the mall they didn’t need. They found, for instance, that they could do without:

  • A water fountain for their cat.
  • A cell phone that works underwater.
  • Alarm clocks that project the time on your ceiling in the middle of the night (when you should be sleeping) but can’t be read during the daylight (when you should be getting up).
  • Gas-powered blenders for the backyard.
  • And, perhaps most interesting of all, pants that talk. These talking pants say “Zip me!”[1]

Each of us can probably think of other things less stupid, but also unnecessary:

  • A TV in every room.
  • 3 or 4 automobiles
  • A wide array of PCs, laptops, tablets, cell phones.
  • 10 magazine subscriptions, NetFlix, HBO, Amazon Prime, Showcase and STARZ.
  • A toaster, air fryer, InstaPot, Cuisinart, hand blender and Bullet. (The latter is my personal ‘sin of commission’.)

There are many people who have basically given up all or most of their “riches” and gone to live in simplicity to serve others and follow Jesus. At once comes to mind Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, and Oscar Romero (who will be canonized today by Pope Francis) – and countless people who are not famous, but beloved in their cities and countries. And we admire, applaud, and are grateful for them all. Our earth is a better place because they lived.

But in reality, let’s face it – most of us are not going to do that and I don’t think Jesus really meant for us to do that. I think the story of the Rich Ruler in today’s Gospel is another teaching tool to help us learn what it truly means to follow the way of Jesus. For me, it means to be willing to put the teachings of Jesus first – to put into practice every day, putting the love, compassion and service to everyone – not just friends and family and colleagues – but everyone: all races, all economic levels, strangers, people I do not understand or think I don’t like – EVERYONE!

We must examine our priorities when considering our neighbors or church community, our civic communities and the wider world. There is poverty and injustice and violence that we can do something about. There are children without homes, people living on the streets, mentally ill citizens who have been neglected by society, elders who either have no one who cares for them or are in facilities that abuse them all around us. Hunger and want are rampant, not only in the United States, but places like Yemen where there is no food in the entire country. Climate change has created vast deserts that used to be the bread basket of African countries and many are now surviving on starvation rations or leaves and berries.

These are things that we can do something about by re-evaluating our priorities. There is a distinct difference between what we actually ‘need’ and what we ‘want’. Addressing our ‘needs’ and using our time, treasures and talents from those resources which were our ‘wants’ to contribute to the welfare of others will go a long way toward fulfilling Jesus’ admonition in this scripture.

But let me remind you of something else, the Good News is not about money: Salvation is not determined by what we’ve given up for God, but what God has given up for us. We are not saved by our tithes, but by our ties to the Man from Nazareth. That is good news, isn’t it? It’s called grace, amazing grace. We have not given all we should, but God has given enough for everyone. The disciples were startled when they heard Jesus say that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:25), and they asked,

“Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said (Probably very lovingly, because, once again they just didn’t get it), “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)

In other words, salvation doesn’t depend on what we do, but on what God has done through Jesus Christ. God has accepted us as we are, and loves us as we are – and assures us a place in Heaven!

A young woman named Sharon was waiting to board a bus to New Jersey. She noticed a tall disheveled man trying to get on the same bus. He and the bus driver were arguing, because the man didn’t have the right amount of money. Finally, the man got out of line and stumbled against all the other people. Then he spied Sharon. He asked her, “Would you please give me some money so that I can get on the bus?”

What would you do in that situation? Sharon hesitated and said, “When I get on the bus I will see.” In the next 30 seconds as she walked up the steps to the bus and dropped in her $1.25 fare, she quickly thought through what she should do. She said the sort of things we say to ourselves. “Why should I help him? Why should he get a free ride? There are so many other people who have greater needs.” Sharon had noticed he was carrying some mail with a check on top. “He just needs to go cash that check. It’s probably a welfare check. He’ll just spend it on something ridiculous.”

On the other hand, Sharon reasoned, with a mind of faith: “Don’t you have any compassion? Where is your Christ-likeness? Okay, Lord,” she asked, “what should I do?” And before she knew it, she said to the bus driver, “Wait, don’t close the doors. Leave them open and let him in. I will pay for him.” The bus driver opened the doors, the man ran up the steps, looked at her and smiled and just said, “Thanks.”

God seemed to have spoken to Sharon and this is what God said, “Sharon, do you see? That’s what I did for you. No, that man didn’t deserve your $1.25. He didn’t do anything to earn it, but you gave it to him as a gift. And you did nothing to deserve my love either. I sent my Son for you. My Son died on the cross saying, “open the door, Father, let her in, I will pay for her; today she will be with me in Heaven.” And in that sobering moment Sharon realized again the grace of God in her life.

You and I are rich in many ways. Christ isn’t calling us to give up everything to follow him, only to give sacrificially. What matters most of all is not what we do for God, but what God has done for us. God has given God’s own Son to throw wide the gates of Heaven . .  . for all of us.

So, what can we do with our resources? In this time of stewardship focus at Saint John’s?

What can we do together – here – how can we combine our resources – not only financial, but time, energy and talents – to further the love and service of our Savior?

We have a beautiful and life-saving message for the world – for our friends and neighbors in Worthington and Columbus, for those in need either physically or emotionally. As an old agnostic once commented: “If I believed what you Christians believed, I would be willing to crawl through broken glass to tell the world about it”.

Together we can do so much – as a Beloved Community of people following Jesus, loving one another and serving others because Jesus opened the doors of Heaven to all of us.

Let’s all commit to give the extra dollar, go the extra mile with our time and abilities – to come together in generosity of all of our resources. So that together we can say ‘thank you’ to our God, for this amazing life we are given, say ‘thank you’ to our Savior Jesus Christ for showing us ‘the Way’, ‘the Truth’, ‘the Life’, and say ‘thank you’ by spreading that love individually and together at Saint John’s.

I leave you with some of the words attributed to Saint Francis:

O Divine Master –
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console,To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Let us pray:

Dear Lord, we are assured of our place in Heaven by the grace of the death and resurrection of Jesus. But help us remember those who are less fortunate, who suffer, who are neglected by others. You have given us what seems like an impossible task with this Gospel passage. You have asked us to deny ourselves; even when our spirits are willing, the flesh is weak. You know our hearts- help us, with Your Holy Spirit, to examine our hearts and listen to your words. We desire to become more and more like You, less selfish and more selfless, willing to deny ourselves in order to follow Jesus’ teachings. This we pray. Amen.
 
[1]       Martha Bolton, Phil Callaway,  It’s Always Darkest Before the Fridge Door Opens, Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2006, p. 139
 
 

Delivered at Saint John ‘s Episcopal Church in Worthington and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 14 October 2018