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Thoughts for a Blue Christmas

‘Tis the season . . .

For many people – especially children – the Christmas holidays are a time of joy and even magic! Joyful reunions with families and friends, boisterous laughter, tables groaning with goodies, gifts shared abound for many – all with a sense of gratitude. For those most mindful of the reason we celebrate the birth of Jesus, there is a renewed hope for peace on earth and humble thankfulness for God taking human form to show us the way to happy and meaningful lives. It is a time of prayers and promises to love more, give more, serve more, and to work consciously for the well-being of our fellow man.

However, for some people – many more than you may think – the holiday season is anything but joyous, but rather something to ‘get through’ and endure. The days are not merry and bright, and a sense of isolation, sadness, and depression underlie valiant attempts to be festive.

Remember: the holidays are here—and for some – they can hurt!

Loss of loved ones, feelings of failure over families or careers, health problems, financial troubles can fester into gloom under the light of Christmas trees and merry-making. Compelled to feel happy and upbeat, these folks feel even more guilt because they are not.

So, if you are hurting this holiday season …

Let it hurt. Allow pain to come fully without alteration. Life is difficult and you are not OK, and you shouldn’t waste precious time and energy to pretend that it isn’t so. Let grief and sadness be there; be authentic to yourself. It’s OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. Tears help to wash away the deep pain of loss.

Don’t hide your pain. Give people close to you the most authentic version of yourself as you are able to give. Allow people who love you to help you through this season. Let them see you, not some sanitized, edited version you think they expect. You can’t force yourself to be happy just because it’s the holiday season. If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out community, religious or other social events that support your feelings. They can offer support and companionship. Volunteering your time to help others is also a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships.

Don’t be fooled by the calendar. The holidays are just a series of days, even though the trappings may make you feel otherwise. Release yourself from the expectation to have some magical Christmas conversion like George Bailey, in  It’s A Wonderful Life. If this season finds you less than alright, stay true to yourself and your authentic feelings, and realize “this too shall pass”.

Don’t sabotage yourself. Don’t try to convince yourself that you ‘must’ be happy during the holidays. Since you’re the only one who truly knows the depth and scope of your sadness, don’t beat yourself up; don’t be complicit in your own guilt trip. Go easy on yourself. Don’t let the holidays become a free-for-all. Overindulgence only adds to your stress and guilt.

Give yourself permission to do what you need. Make some time for yourself. There are times and places during the holidays where the hurt is too much to handle; certain gatherings, parties, people, activities. Don’t feel as though you need to do all, or any of it! Balance your need to protect your emotions ; there is nothing wrong with avoiding negative situations. Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed.

Embrace this holiday season as-is. There is still goodness to be welcomed and blessing to be claimed this holiday season, even in the pain. There will be holidays in the future when you will feel stronger and lighter; allow yourself to accept whatever gifts this holiday has for you.

Remember, Jesus was born for you. Jesus’ message of love, forgiveness and salvation is yours, even if you cannot fully feel it this holiday! His message reminds us every day that loss, grief, estrangement and guilt are all part of the human experience. When you can, reach out to others, forgive, let go, and know that the birth of the child we celebrate is also the birth of understanding, acceptance, and eternal life – and in your deepest sorrow, perhaps this can be, for you, a light of joy and peace.

And above all, friend, know that it’s OK to be blue this holiday season.

It really is.
 
 
Written for The Crossroads, Saint John’s Episcopal Church Worthington and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 12 December 2017

We Are ALL Invited!

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. ” But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:1-14)

We just heard about a king who held a wedding reception for his son where none of the invited guests showed up.

Can you imagine that? Would you ever skip a wedding reception if invited by your king?

And if you remember, there were some pretty lame excuses why people couldn’t be bothered to attend!

So the king, having found out who TRULY were his friends, sent his servants out to invite anyone they found in the street. These people invited were commoners, slaves, servants and merchants. They were honest and hardworking people, but also, according to the Scripture, bad people, criminals and thieves. Anyone who happened to be on the street was invited to come to this sumptuous feast.

Now, this parable from Jesus is not really about a wedding feast, but a story about the salvation that is available if you follow Jesus. The king represents God, who asks each and every one of us to come into his Kingdom. . . no matter what our station in life, what we have done in the past. The Kingdom of Heaven is not limited to only the ‘good’ people or the Jewish people.

Heaven is open to all of us.

But there are some conditions for entry to the Kingdom of Heaven. The scripture says that there was one man who did not have a wedding robe. But this doesn’t refer to a piece of clothing – that just doesn’t make sense since the king’s servants went out onto the street and hauled in everyone they could find. Obviously, no one was dressed for the wedding.

This ‘robe’ is the ROBE OF SALVATION, which we all get when we give our lives to Jesus. . . when all our sins are forgiven and we are clean and spotless.

In Isaiah 6:10, we are told that when accept Christ, we are

clothed me with the garments of salvation, and He has wrapped with a robe of righteousness.

It is God who clothes us. Nothing that we do can possibly be enough to earn us salvation or righteousness. Only God can cleanse us from iniquity and cause us to be truly blameless, or righteous.

But we have a choice – we can choose to accept Christ and wear the ‘wedding robe’ or we can choose not to. It is solely up to each one of us.

The last line of the scripture (Matthew 22:14) says:

For many are called, but few are chosen.

We all receive the invitation, but not everyone will be chosen. Are you going to be one of the ‘chosen’ ones or will you be thrown into darkness?

It is your choice. . .  what are you going to choose?

Let us pray:

Dear Lord, open our eyes and hearts to the wonders of your salvation through Jesus Christ. Please help us to see that we can throw off the rags of our current life and put on shiny white robe through your salvation. May we live our lives on the path to your Kingdom. Amen.

 
 
Delivered to In the Garden, Trinity Episcopal Church on Capitol Square, Columbus, OH; 15 October 2017

Are We EVER Satisfied??

Exodus 16:2-15/Matthew 20:1-15

Take my words and speak through them, take our ears and hear through them, take our hearts & set them on fire with love for you. Amen.

Let’s set the scene: As the Israelites left Egypt, we would expect them to be overjoyed and relieved because their prayers for deliverance were finally answered, but instead we find an ungrateful and cynical nation. They complained to Moses:

“was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?” (Exodus 14:11)

So, God hears their complaining and splits the Red Sea and delivers them from the Egyptians to begin their journey to the Promised land.

But are they happy yet? NO!

You would think that the camp would be thrilled with their new-found freedom. They were leaving bitter bondage behind and were traveling toward the Promised land. But instead of rejoicing, we read that the Israelites were grumbling:

“if only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death”. (Exodus 16:3)

They were hungry. So, God provided them with manna. Manna, a sweet gum or resin type bread, appeared on the ground each day and they ate manna until they reached the border of Canaan. By evening what manna had not been eaten disappeared. In order to honor the Sabbath, the manna lasted for two days on the sixth day, because it was a holy rest day. So, they always had something to eat.

But were they happy? NO! They complained because there was not meat!

The Israelites continually reminisced about Egypt, as if it had been Paradise. How soon they forgot the brick pits, the task masters whip, how conveniently they forgot the cramps from the hard toil, and the blood, sweat and tears they shed slaving for Pharaoh. Like Lot’s wife looking back toward Sodom, they looked back toward Egypt, as if it had held something good for them to miss. The more God’s miraculous powers, protections, and provisions are made for them, the more ridiculous and loud their complaints were. With children so disrespectful and ungrateful as these, God might have rained down fire and brimstone, but instead He rains down sweet manna from heaven.

And yet again, they grumbled:

They began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Numbers 11:4-6)

How foolhardy it was to look at the gifts from God with contempt. Manna was free. They didn’t have to work for it. It wasn’t hard to gather. It was sweet. It was versatile and could be used in a multitude of ways.

‘Nothing but Manna!” (Numbers 11:6)

Once again, God listened to their grumblings and gave them what they wanted:

The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them at twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. (Exodus 16:11-13)

Were they EVER going to be happy with their lot?

Just what was it going to take to please these people?

You know, it seems we can always find something to complain about. There is always something to complain about, even when there isn’t. We can find a grievance if we want to, no matter how unreasonable it is. We grumble and complain when it’s too hot, when it’s too cold, we grumble when it rains, we complain when it snows. We complain when the weather has been too sunny for just a day longer than we would like it to be… and that is just about the weather!

I guess it has been that way since the creation of Adam and Eve and will be that way until the end of time. People have always been grumpy and complaining. King Solomon, one of the wisest men on earth, prophesized it in Ecclesiastes 1:9:

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”.

*

Indeed, we hear the same type of complaining in today’s Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-15).

This difficult parable attributed to Jesus only appears in Matthew. . . and there is probably a really good reason for this.

It addresses the greed of people who feel they deserve more than anyone else. Not a topic that most people want to hear about.

And, it also turns the world’s commonly-accepted idea of fairness upside down – also, not a popular idea!

Those workers who toiled all day in the hot sun were bitter because those who only worked a short time were paid the same amount as they were paid. They protested:

“It’s Not Fair!”

The estate manager hired laborers for his vineyard about 6:00 a.m. for what amounts to about one dollar, which was considered to be a fair day’s wages. Then he shows his generosity as he hires laborers at nine, noon and three. He actually didn’t need them for the harvest, but was compassionate because they were unemployed and their families were hungry.

When paid, they not only received payment in reverse order, but all workers received the same wage for their efforts. The workers who were hired first appealed to the estate manager using common sense, fair play, logic, and reason. Their complaint was not necessarily that the last hired received the same wage, but that if the manager was that generous with the last, then certainly he might provide them with a “bonus” for having endured the heat of the day. But a contract is a contract, and therefore the laborers hired at the beginning of the day had no real cause to quibble or argue – they got paid exactly what they had contracted with the manager. But they felt they had a legitimate complaint – based on the worldly principles of fairness and logic.

In fact, some of them felt so cheated, that they left without their pay.

I suggest to you this parable is not about fair labor management, but rather is a statement about the radical nature of God and the Kingdom, and the wideness of God’s grace. The nature of grace not only finds human labor to be  insufficient to gain grace, but ultimately unnecessary because of God’s love for all people. Participation in the Kingdom of God does not come about by works, but rather comes from the unmerited and unending grace of God. And all will receive that grace, regardless of when they come to accept the love of God.

I suggest to you, the real message of this parable is not about money and fairness, but

The kingdom of God. . .

And God’s Grace.

Grace is defined as ‘unmerited favor, unearned gift or blessing given, regardless of our worthiness’. It is God’s unconditional love that we don’t deserve, that adds strength to our daily lives, that provides forgiveness for our sins and shortcomings, and gives us assurance of eternal life.

No, life is not fair and, thank God, grace isn’t fair either!

God has no reason to be accepting and forgiving of us other than that He is love incarnate and loves us. We have no reason to expect, much less demand that grace, except that He promised it to us. If we were to receive what we deserved, if we lived by our idea of fairness, most of us would be left out and ignored, humiliated and condemned by normal expectations. We would work and receive little; if we arrived late, we would receive nothing. But God does not treat us as we deserve. He gives us His unconditional love. He extends to us the grace to do something worthwhile with our lives. He voluntarily promises us life with Him. So how can we whine or quarrel when He has given us, all of us, much more than is fair?

If we got what was fair, none of us would get to heaven.

Let me repeat that:

If we got what was fair, none of us would get to heaven.

God doesn’t give us what is fair, but gives us His love and grace, in spite of what we deserve!

The test for us is how will we accept that love? What kind of people will we be? Will we picture ourselves as those who ‘deserve’ grace and favor and complain about everything God has given us, or will we picture ourselves as those who are blessed undeservingly? If we end up resenting the grace God gives to others, we miss the point of God’s grace.

The grumblers that could only see obstacles on the way to the wonderful Promised land of God did not even see the blessing of God’s sweet manna. Today, I remind us to accept a new type of manna, a new type of bread.

Then Jesus declared “I am the Bread of Life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)

Christ is the ever living, everlasting bread; bread that nourishes us physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually

by His example and love,

by His mercy and forgiveness,

by His Holy Spirit that surrounds us every moment of our lives if we will be open to it.

This bread will sustain our soul forever!

When you find yourself cynically complaining and dissatisfied with life or the world around you, remember this quote from the Rolling Stones:

You can’t always get what you want,
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try some time, you just might find,
You get what you need.

And what we need is that sweet manna from Heaven, that Bread of Life, the love of Jesus, that will sustain us as we travel to the Promised Land.

So, when we come to the altar rail for communion, let us forget our daily complaints, and remember if we will receive it, we are offered this Bread of Life for eternity.

Amen.

 

Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington and Parts Adjacent, 24 September 2017

The Tragedy at Charlottesville

We saw the underbelly of American the last two days in Charlottesville, Virginia. People who now feel that they have ‘permission’, even support from people in the government, to spew their hatred and bigotry and racism openly and violently. We saw armed militias carrying Confederate flags marching in goosesteps, white supremacists shouting angry slogans, members of the KKK no longer hiding under bedsheets, but openly proclaiming their part in the election of the president and their right to return America to a white, Christian nation. Hatred consumes these people; something that is NOT a Christian value.

And most tragic of all, we saw a young person from Maumee, Ohio, deliberately drive his car into a group of peaceful counter-protestors, killing at least one innocent bystander just trying to cross the street, and injuring scores of others, some who may still succumb to their injuries. This kind of hatred and violence does not only happen ‘somewhere else’, but right here in our state and our communities. We need to stand against this.

But we also saw a group of people of faith joined together (Catholics, Protestants, Jews,  Muslims, Buddhists and others) singing This little light of mine in love and fellowship to counter the vitriolic chants of the ultra-conservative Alt-Right, Neo-Nazis, KKK, nationalists, white supremacists, armed militia, and people angry because Charlottesville is going to remove a statue of Robert E Lee from a park called ‘Emancipation Park’.

Most of us cannot make any sense or see any justifiable reason for the actions of those who chose to create discord and spew bigotry and hatred and xenophobia. But, those people of faith chose to take the risk, get out there, arms joined together in solidarity, and do what was right.  They chose to get out of the boat! – to risk life and limb to present to the world what the love and teachings of Jesus really are.

They got out of the boat!

So where are you this morning?

Huddled in the boat with a life jacket and your seat belt on?

One leg in, one leg out?

Out of the boat, but fearful, still clinging to the edge?

Or looking with faith into the eyes of Jesus and walking on water?

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, help us to walk with you wherever this life may take us. Help us to recognize whatever it is that:

Helps us to seek you,
Helps us to trust you,
Helps us to obey your teachings.

Help us to face our fears and trust whatever the storms of life may be, You are there, guiding and redeeming us. Be with those who have died and are injured physically and emotionally from this horrid incident in Charlottesville. Wrap your loving arms around them and the rest of the nation, reminding us that

The greatest of these is love  (1 Corinthians 13:13)

And give us the strength to get out of the boat.

Amen.
 

Excerpted from a sermon (‘If You Want to Walk on Water, You  Gotta Get Out of the Boat!’) delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church  of Worthington and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 13 August 2017

If You Want to Walk on Water, You Gotta Get Out of the Boat!

Matthew 14:22-33

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you and call us to action, our Creator and Sustainer.

In today’s gospel of Matthew it was pointed out that the wind was very strong and the waves were very high, but Peter did not notice them at first. In his excitement at recognizing his Lord he stepped out of the boat and walked on the water. When he realized what he was actually doing and he instantly sank. Glub! Glub!

Did Peter sink because he didn’t have enough faith as Jesus accused him when he said

‘oh, ye of little faith’? (Matthew 14:31)

I don’t think so.

The first thing I think is important to clear up is that, at least to me, “faith” or “belief” doesn’t mean belief in an expected outcome, but rather trust in another person. Believing in Jesus does not mean believing that we’ll be “successful” (however we define that!) in whatever it is that Jesus is calling us to do. Nor does having faith IN Jesus imply blithely signing off on a list of statements ABOUT Jesus, His teachings, His examples, and His call to us. Having faith in Jesus means a willingness to follow Jesus. To have faith isn’t an activity of the brain so much as a feeling of the heart. In other words, faith is about doing. A faithful person eventually gets to the point where they can say to God, “I don’t know where you’re going, but I know that wherever it is, I’d rather be drowning with you than anywhere else.” In my own life, that kind of trust in Jesus comes from knowing Jesus. The kind of trust I have in Jesus has come as I’ve experienced Jesus’ generosity and mercy. That process of building confidence, of getting to know Jesus so deeply that I can trust Jesus, is part of what I call the “journey of faith”.

When I say that faith is ‘doing’, what I mean is that I believe faith begins with action, with taking a step, with taking a risk. The best intentions in the world don’t do much without action, but taking that step, even with mixed or unclear intentions, or sometimes great fear, just might give you the experience of meeting God on the road, in a dark valley, or at sea.

So, if you want to walk on water, you gotta get out of the boat!.

But there is a lot of risk in doing so.

Water Walkers Will Face Storms
When you are serving God, and trying to be obedient to Christ, you will have to face storms of trials and difficulties. Even as you sit here today, you may be going through a personal storm. And in almost every instance, it is hard to see God’s hand and love as you weather those storms. Maybe it’s financial problems, or problems in a relationship; you might be having family problems, or problems at your job or school. We all have storms in our lives. Anyone who tells you that leading a true Christian life is smooth sailing – that life is easy or your worries disappear – doesn’t understand what the Bible teaches about serving the Lord. 2 Timothy 3:12 says,

In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

Remember, the disciples were in a storm because they were trying to be obedient to Jesus. Matthew 14:22 says

Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side.

And they did, or at least they tried to. And many hours later they hadn’t made much progress. So, remember, obedient water walkers will face storms.

Water Walkers Recognize God’s Presence
Jesus wanted to be alone to pray, so He sent the disciples ahead without him. To them it was no big deal – they used boats for fishing on a daily basis. But this huge storm blew in – bigger than most storms. Matthew says that the boat was battered by the waves (Matthew 14:24). The storm was so violent that the disciples could barely keep the boat upright.

I can imagine that they wished the sides of the boat were a little higher and the wood a little thicker. Deep in the night, the storm was getting really bad. I can imagine that at that point they weren’t worried about making it to the other side – they just wanted to stay alive. The disciples were in great fear and deep distress. It is about this time that Jesus decided to come toward them.

It’s interesting – Jesus wasn’t in a boat and the disciples didn’t recognize him. The disciples were convinced he was a ghost, so they were terrified and cried out in fear. But Matthew wanted us to know that sometimes it is only with the eyes of faith that we can fully recognize when Jesus is present.

Often, our own lives are tormented by waves of disappointment and doubt. And we are usually no better at recognizing His presence than the disciples were.

What was Jesus up to, walking around on the sea in the middle of a stormy night?

He saw the disciples straining at the oars because the wind was against them. Yet when Jesus came to the disciples on the water, he was not just doing a neat magic trick. He was revealing His divine presence and power.

It is interesting that the disciples took the boat out in the first place at Jesus’ command. They would have to learn, as we all do, that obedience is no guarantee of being spared adversity. But as the storm gained their full attention, Jesus decided that it was time for the disciples to get to know a little bit more about the one who was really piloting this storm.

Basically, Jesus wanted them to be able to also trust Him in the storms. The problem was “they just didn’t get it.

God was visiting them while walking on the water but they didn’t see it; for us, Jesus often comes when least expected – in the middle of a storm. I believe that extreme stress can be a frequent meeting place with God. These are those divinely-appointed defining moments that come into all of our lives. And, if you’re not looking for Him, if you cannot acknowledge that He can be there in the storm, you might just miss Him.

Twelve disciples sat in the boat; we don’t know how the other eleven responded to Jesus’ voice. Were they confused?

Did they respond with wonder?

Disbelief?

Or perhaps a little of each! But one of them, Peter, was about to become a water walker. He recognized that God was present – even in the most unlikely place, and he rushed to meet his Lord, oblivious to the risk – never questioning that Jesus was walking on water, only realizing that He was there.

Water Walkers Know the Difference Between Faith and Foolishness
Peter blurted out to Jesus,

“if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” (Matthew 14:28)

Why doesn’t Peter just plunge into the water? This is not just a story about risk taking; it is also a story about obedience. That means we will have to determine an authentic call from God and what might simply be a foolish impulse on our part. Courage alone is not enough; it must be accompanied by wisdom and discernment. This is not a story about extreme actions; it’s about extreme discipleship! This means that before Peter gets out of the boat – he had better make sure Jesus thinks it’s a good idea. So, he asks for clarity,

“if it is you, command me…” (Matthew 14:28)

Peter had enough faith to believe that he too could share in the eternal mystery and power of the Savior of mankind. That if Jesus commanded him to do something, no matter how difficult or extreme, he could do it.

Water walkers will face storms; water walkers recognize God’s presence; water walkers acknowledge the difference between faith and foolishness.

Water Walkers MUST Get Out of the Boat
Put yourself in this story; picture in your mind how violent the storm must have been. It was strong enough to keep seasoned professional fishermen struggling just to avoid being capsized. Imagine the size of the waves, the strength of the wind, the darkness of this night. These were the conditions under which Peter was going to get out of the boat. It would be tough enough to try to walk on water when the water is calm, the sun is bright, and the air is still. Imagine trying to do it when the waves are crashing, the wind is at gale force, it’s pitch black and you are terrified!

Put yourself in Peter’s place for a moment. You have a sudden insight into what Jesus is doing. Jesus is inviting you to go on the adventure of your life. But at the same time, you’re scared to death. What would you choose – the water or the boat? The boat is safe, more secure, and certainly more comfortable. The water is rough and the waves are high, the wind is strong; there’s a storm out there. And if you get out of the boat – whatever your boat happens to be – there’s a good chance you might sink! But if you don’t get out of the boat there’s a guaranteed certainty that you will never walk on the water. If you want to walk on water – you gotta get out of the boat. I believe there is something – some voice inside us – that assures us there is more to life than sitting in the boat.

You and I were made for something more than merely avoiding failure. There’s something inside us that wants us to walk on the water – to leave the comfort of mere existence and abandon ourselves to the higher adventure of following God. So, let me ask you a very important question:

What is your boat?

  • your boat is whatever represents safety and security to you apart from God himself;
  • your boat is whatever you are tempted to cling to, especially when life gets a little stormy;
  • your boat is whatever keeps you so comfortable that you don’t want to give it up, even if it’s keeping you from joining Jesus in a miraculous and transforming journey;
  • your boat is whatever pulls you away from the high adventure of extreme discipleship.

Do you want to know what your boat is?  

Your fear will tell you. Just ask yourself this: what is it that most produces fear in me?

Fear of failure or loss of dignity?

Fear of judgment or making a mistake?

Fear or being seen as a fool or fanatic?

In what area(s) of your life are you shrinking back from fully and courageously trusting God? Fear will tell you what your boat is. Leaving it may be the hardest thing you will ever do. But if you want to walk on the water, you gotta get out of the boat!

Remember: Water walkers will face storms; water walkers recognize God’s presence; water walkers know the difference between faith and foolishness; water walkers get out of the boat.

Water Walkers Face Their Fears to Grow
So, Peter goes to the side of the boat. The other disciples are watching closely. They wonder how far he will take this thing. One can imagine he put one foot over the side, carefully gripping the edge of the boat. Then he put the other foot over the boat; he’s holding on for dear life.

For a while it’s as if Peter and Jesus are present on the water. Peter is beaming with delight. Jesus is thrilled with his student – like master, like disciple. Then it happens – Peter saw and felt the wind. Reality set in, and Peter surely asked himself, “what was I thinking?” He realized he was standing on the water in the middle of a storm with no boat beneath him – and he was terrified!

Nothing had really changed. The storm shouldn’t have been a surprise – it had been there all along. What really had taken place was that Peter’s focus had shifted from Jesus to the storm.

We are all the same. We start something filled with hope, then reality sets in. Setbacks. . . Opposition. . . . Unexpected obstacles. We see and feel the wind.

It should be expected. The world’s a pretty stormy place. But somehow trouble still has the power to catch us by surprise. Because of the wind.  some people decide to never leave the boat. If you get out of the boat, you will face the wind and the storms out there. But you should know there is no guarantee that life in the boat is going to be any safer, it is just more limited, finite, full of fear and doubt.

Peter faced a choice, as we all do. The choice to follow Jesus – the choice to grow –  the choice to overcome fear. You’ve gotta get out of the boat a little every day! Here’s a deep truth about water walking: the fear never goes away, it is always lurking there.

Why? Because each time you want to grow, it will involve going into new territory, taking on new challenges. And each time you do that, you will experience fear again. As you see in this story… you will always have choices…

risk vs. security

exhilaration vs. comfort.

Yet, every time you get out of the boat, you become a little more likely to get out the next time. It’s not that the fear goes away, but that you get used to dealing with fear. And each time fear loses its power to destroy you. On the other hand, every time you resist that voice, every time you choose to stay in the boat rather than heed its call, the voice gets a little quieter and further away.

Then, at last you may not hear its call at all.

Water Walkers Master Failure
As a result of seeing the wind and giving in to fear, Peter began to sink into the water. So here is the question: Did Peter fail? Before I offer you an answer, let me make an observation about failure.

Failure is not an event, but rather a judgment about an event. Failure is not something that happens to us, or a label we attach to things. It is a way we think about outcomes.

Did you know that:

  • Before Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for polio that finally worked, he tried 200 unsuccessful times.
  • When Thomas Edison was branded a failure in his attempts to create a light bulb he said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
  • Before James Dyson invented the perfect vacuum cleaner he went through 5,127 prototypes.

So… did Peter fail? Probably.

He took his eyes off the Lord and sank. But I think there were eleven greater failures sitting in the boat. At least Peter got out of the boat and into the water and walked toward Jesus – and even for a short time he DID walk on the water.

Peter did not fail because he got out of the boat. The saddest failure is to never get out of the boat! Water walkers see failure as an opportunity to grow. As soon as Peter asks for help, Jesus was there.

“Lord… save me.” (Matthew 14:30)

Jesus helped him physically by pulling him out of the water. But he also helped Peter grow by identifying his problem:

“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31)

I don’t think Jesus was being harsh or critical here. Jesus made this comment to Peter while they were still out on the water alone. Jesus didn’t embarrass him in front of his fellow disciples. The problem was clear: whether Peter sank into or walked on the water depended on whether he focused on the storm or on Jesus. Whether he focused on his own limitations and doubts or believed that Jesus would help him overcome these limitation and doubts.

It was Peter’s willingness to risk failure that helped him to grow. Failure is an indispensable, irreplaceable part of learning and growth. Failure doesn’t shape you; the way you respond to failure shapes you.

Jesus is still looking for people who will get out of the boat.

So, why should you risk it?

  • it is the only way to real growth
  • it is the way true faith develops
  • it is part of discovering your reason for being and answering your own calling.

I believe that there are many good reasons to get out of the boat. But there is one that stands above them all. . .

the water is where Jesus is.

Jesus is not in the boat!

The water may be dark, wet, and dangerous. But remember, Jesus is not in the boat.

Peter’s request was,

“Lord, if it’s you, command me to come to you.” Then Peter got out of the boat and came toward Jesus. (Matthew 14:28)

Because Peter did this – got out of the boat – he came to a deeper understanding of His Master than ever before.

So, how about you? When was the last time you got out of the boat?

The call to get out of the boat involves discomfort, often disappointment, perhaps some failure, fear and sometimes suffering. It is always a call for a task too big for us. But there is no other way to grow closer to God!

We saw the underbelly of American the last two days in Charlottesville, Virginia. People who now feel that they have ‘permission’, even support from people in the government, to spew their hatred and bigotry and racism openly and violently. We saw armed militias carrying Confederate flags marching in goosesteps, white supremacists shouting angry slogans, members of the KKK no longer hiding under bedsheets, but openly proclaiming their part in the election of the president and their right to return America to a white, Christian nation. Hatred consumed these people; something that is NOT a Christian value.

And most tragic of all, we saw a young person from Maumee, Ohio, deliberately drove his car into a group of peaceful counter-protestors, killing at least one innocent bystander just trying to cross the street, and injuring scores of others, some who may still succumb to their injuries. This kind of hatred and violence does not only happen ‘somewhere else’, but right here in our state and our communities. We need to stand against this.

But we also saw a group of people of faith joined together (Christians, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists and others) singing This little light of mine in love and fellowship to counter the vitriolic chants of the ultra-conservative Alt-Right, Neo-Nazis, KKK, nationalists, white supremacy, armed militia, and people angry because Charlottesville wants to remove a statue of Robert E Lee from a park called ‘Emancipation Park’.

Most of us cannot make any sense or see any justifiable reason for the actions of those who chose to create discord and spew bigotry and hatred and xenophobia. But, those people of faith chose to take the risk, get out there, arms joined together in solidarity, and do what was right.  They chose to get out of the boat! – to risk life and limb to present to the world what the love and teachings of Jesus really are.

They got out of the boat!

So where are you this morning?

  • Huddled in the boat with a life jacket and your seat belt on?
  • One leg in, one leg out?
  • Out of the boat, but fearful, still clinging to the edge?
  • Or looking with faith into the eyes of Jesus and walking on water?

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, help us to walk with you wherever this life may take us. Help us to recognize whatever it is that:

Helps us to seek you,

Helps us to trust you,

Helps us to obey your teachings.

Help us to face our fears and trust whatever the storms of life may be, You are there, guiding and redeeming us. Be with those who have died and are injured physically and emotionally from this horrid incident in Charlottesville. Wrap your loving arms around them and the rest of the nation, reminding us that

The greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13)

And give us the strength to get out of the boat.

Amen.

 

Delivered at Saint John’s Worthington and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 13 August 2017

Listen to Your Mountaintop!

Luke 9:28-36

Even as a child, I loved to watch clouds – as they moved, changed shapes and colors – they fascinated me. If you follow my Facebook page, you know I am frequently posting hundreds or maybe even a thousand pictures of sunrises and sunsets and the formation of clouds that surround them. Some people have even accused me of being obsessed with clouds. When I was a little girl, my friends and I would lie in the grass and analyze cloud shapes – a horse? a boat? a dragon? a face? The interesting thing was that rarely did any two of us see the same thing – different experiences conjured up different impression in our minds.

As in so many passages in the Bible, we read about the Transfiguration of Jesus told in a language we can only accept as a metaphor.

In this modern world, we do not expect, or even look for, a literal appearance of God on mountaintops, . . . in clouds, . . . in mystical or supernatural appearances, . . . or actually talking to us today. But that is exactly what our gospel reading is about

While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35)

The ancient Biblical writers often used clouds when they depicted important occasions when God was dealing with his people. We can recall:

  • When the Israelites fled from Egypt, a pillar of cloud led them by day.
  • When Moses climbed up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God, a cloud descended upon the mountain, obscuring it. The people looked up, and they could no longer see Moses.
  • When God instructed the Israelites to construct a portable tabernacle, God filled the tent with his Presence in the form of a cloud.
  • And, later, when Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, once again a cloud filled the sanctuary.

So, in our Scripture reading, when the cloud descended over the mountaintop with Jesus, Peter, John and James…

we shouldn’t be surprised.

The scripture writers, once again, were depicting a time when the Presence of God was enveloping them, as the Presence of God has done time and time again to His faithful people.

It is this Biblical account of Jesus’ transfiguration occurring on a mountaintop – as well as the experience of Moses at Mount Sinai in the Hebrew Bible, that has given rise to the commonly used term ‘mountaintop experience’ – a moment of such intense joy and beauty in one’s life that we are somehow changed – and never forget it.

To depict God, appearing as a cloud, says something important about God. Clouds are not crystal clear, but rather dense and opaque. But, also within clouds is brilliant light, reflecting from and off the clouds. That is a great mystery; how can something opaque and dense put forth brilliant light.

So, perhaps then, it is fitting that clouds are used to remind us of the mystery of God – the lack of clarity and precision, the sense of wonder and transformation.

In our world we want to know things. We want Google at our fingertips to tell us everything about anything, and we want Facebook to instantly tell us everything else—like what our friends had for dinner, or how mom’s cruise is going. We humans have a hunger and thirst for knowledge; we have always been curious and wanted answers, the facts. And, as technology has advanced through the millennia, we want more and more knowledge, provable tangible facts within our grasp immediately and at all times.

And, as Christians, we are no different in our quest for answers about our relationship with God. We want to know specifics about God, and our relationship with him. Moreover, we want to know why we are here, what is the meaning of life, where is God, and where will we be after death  –  none of this ‘now we see through a glass darkly’, or in a cloud. We want to know how this story, or that proverb, or this anecdote applies to our life. What it really means. And, we want to know right now, on demand. We don’t want to wait!

So, what really did happen to Jesus and Peter and James and John on that mountaintop? How could we understand what this biblical story means for us? Can we be transfigured on a mountaintop? Or do life-changing moments of mystery and wonder not happen today? Does God no longer ‘speak’ to us?

Life is full of mountaintop experiences. They are the times when we find healing, or unexpected love, when we suddenly have an ‘aha’ moment and clearly know the answer to a problem or important life decision.

Sometimes mountaintop experiences are visions of the intense beauty of nature: the Grand Canyon, the Redwood forests, the Rocky Mountains, a field of sunflowers.

For many mountaintop experiences are inspired by music, art, poetry, . . .or perhaps gathered with others around a campfire, . . .or in an energized and inspiring worship service. Almost always, words cannot express or explain these moments – they are ‘of the spirit’ and involve deep feeling and an ‘inner-knowing’ that is, in fact, more real and true to us than anything we can find on Wikipedia.

It’s tempting to want our life’s journey to be made up of only mountaintop experiences. Then we might bypass the chaos, the challenges, and the struggles. In our mountaintop moments, something inside us cries out, “it is good for us to be here. Let’s just bask in the glory of this place.”

But it’s also true that life – especially if one is a Christian– continually calls us down from those breath-taking moments, down from the mountaintop, and out into the world. We inevitably must descend from our moments of profound glory, celebration, clarity and joy, into the valleys of this world where life is messy, confusing, challenging, and inhospitable.

To follow the teachings of Jesus in a relationship with the Creator isn’t easy. God isn’t composed of a series of facts; the Creator of life is a series of mysteries and questions we can’t easily or quickly understand. God’s Presence is enveloped in mystery. In fact, coming into God’s Presence is like entering a thick cloud where definition is not always precise, but it is there -where answers are not linear and logical, but they are there – and in that cloudy presence, that mountaintop experience we are transfigured – changed for the better, enlightened for a time, aware at the core of our being that there is Order, Reason, Mercy and Love at the heart of everything.

Our encounter with God in mountaintop moments changes our lives. Changes how we look at the world by making us very more aware of how we are to live and what God is calling us to do in the world. It is in these mountaintop experiences that we learn the most, are often brought to uncontrollable tears, inexplicably changed even though there is no way we can explain it to anyone. And in most cases, we don’t totally understand it ourselves.

Encountering God, whether on the mountaintop OR at your kitchen table, leaves you with a sense of awe and joy – often something that you can’t even explain. But you know you have somehow been changed. And you will never the be same ever again. That you have a feeling of being surrounded with love and joy. For at least a time, you suddenly understand what is not understandable.

Moses came down from that clouded mountain with a radiant face—forever changed. Jesus was changed on that mountain – enveloped in the love and light of God, given the highest blessing anyone could ever receive from His Father.

Peter, James, and John were changed on that mountain—forever. And, not because they learned lots of facts. In reality, they probably descended with more questions than answers. But they saw Jesus changed and heard God’s voice. They didn’t know why, but they knew that they would never be the same again.

For like Moses, they met the Presence of the Living God. And, that’s what changed them and what changes us. That’s what alters the course of our lives. And, as Christians, that’s what we’re all about: seeking God’s Presence, experiencing an epiphany, an enlightenment, an awakening.

We try to move too fast in the world today. We want what we want, when we want it. Right now! We want it handed to us on a silver platter, all wrapped up in an explanation. We want no uncertainty; no fogginess; nothing that we have to think about.

But meeting God doesn’t work that way. It is in the time and way of the eternal Creator that we learn and find answers. Our task – our challenge – is to stay open to experiencing the mountaintops, to hearing the voice, to receiving the answers, to following the directions.

It isn’t an accident that Mathew, Mark, and Luke, the three gospel-writers who mention the Transfiguration, infuse the story with foreshadowing of Jesus’ death. In our scripture reading for this morning we are told that Moses and Elijah were speaking to Jesus about “his departure”, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. “Departure” here is another word for death. We are meant to understand that the distance between the mountaintop and the cross is not so great, and that Jesus’ followers should never lose sight of either one of them. In our mountaintop moments we must recognize the sacrifices that we are called to make, just as Jesus did. In our lowly moments of despair we are to remember God’s sovereignty reigns over all things – that indeed “all will be well”, despite the pain and loss and struggle. The mountaintop cannot be separated from the cross. In the struggles also lies the glory.

In the end, the test of any mountaintop experience is what happens back at ground level. Whatever mountaintop experiences we have individually, or as a member of the Body of Christ, what we do with these experiences here on earth in our daily lives is really what matters. Our transfigurations must

change us for the better in the way we live and the work we do. . .

enlighten and sustain us . . .

and motivate us to follow Jesus in every aspect of our lives.

As transfigured children of God, we must heed God’s voice

This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him! (Luke 9:35)

So, in my obsession with clouds, maybe that is my mountaintop experience – seeing and hearing God in the opaqueness and light of those clouds over Columbus.

What and where are your mountaintop experiences?

I only know that we must stay open – through prayer, meditation and calm reflection through shared study and service – to be willing to walk into the cloudy mist and seek the Presence of God. And then go forth to work for the transfiguration of the world into a world of beauty and holiness, of joy, and of love.

Amen.

 

Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 6 August 2017

 

Are We the Wheat . . . or the Weeds?

Today’s Gospel is from Matthew 13:24-30. In it, Jesus tells another parable, one of his many stories that has special meaning. It says:

God’s kingdom is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. That night, while his hired men were asleep, his enemy sowed thistles all through the wheat and slipped away before dawn. When the first green shoots appeared and the grain began to form, the thistles showed up, too. The farmhands came to the farmer and said, ‘Master, that was clean seed you planted, wasn’t it? Where did these thistles come from?’ He answered, ‘Some enemy did this.’ The farmhands asked, ‘Should we weed out the thistles?’ He said, ‘No, if you weed the weeds, you’ll pull up the wheat, too. Let them grow together until harvest time. Then I’ll instruct the harvesters to pull up the weeds and tie them in bundles for the fire, then gather the wheat and put it in the barn.’ (Matthew 13:24-30)

Now, I come from a long line of Illinois farmers and I know the parable of the wheat and tares (or weeds) very well. Often the bags of wheat seed you buy to plant your wheat crop contain seeds from a type of rye grass, which when it sprouts looks exactly like wheat. In the days before weed killer that could target only weeds, we nieces and nephews were ‘hired’ to pull out the weeds in the wheat fields. Unfortunately, unless you waited until the plants were mature, you often also pulled up the wheat instead of the weeds, which, needless to say, did not make my uncles very happy.

This parable of Jesus’ is also about letting things sprout and grow until they show their true nature before you decide what to keep and let grow, and what to remove.

The farmer in this parable planted good seed; that is certainly what he intended when he bought the seed and carefully prepared the field and planted it. But something went wrong. Weeds suddenly appeared among the wheat stalks – robbing the wheat of rain and sun and nourishment. But the farmer was not surprised – anyone who buys and plants seeds knows that there are all kinds of other things in the seed bag. He also knew what to do to ensure that he had a good harvest.

Jesus’ disciples were troubled by the parable, and asked Jesus to explain it. Jesus told them – and us – that He, himself, was the one who was planting the good seed, and that the field where the seed was being planted was the world — the whole world. The wheat is those of us who follow Jesus’ teachings and try to live decent lives of love, services and justice. Jesus told the disciples that an enemy of goodness – or in reality – evil actions and thoughts that occur in our lives separate us from God. These evil things always get mixed in with the good seed. Jesus advised his followers to wait until the harvest to pull the weeds. That then, God would separate the good from the bad – the wheat from weeds – and the good wheat would be saved for the Kingdom.

Today you and I live in a world where good seed and bad seed co-exist. This world of ours is a great field, a field just waiting for good seed. But just as good seed is sown, so is bad.

When we try to eliminate every weed, we forget that we have weeds within us. Not only do the weeds and the wheat grow together in the same field; they grow together in our own lives.

There are no purely good people or totally bad people. As much as we love the old-time westerns where there were good guys and bad guys, and they were easy to tell apart by their black or white hats, the world just isn’t that way. We often judge others and their shortcomings, but we do not see our own quite so clearly.

We often make judgments about our community and those around us

  • this person is a liar;
  • this person is going to cause trouble;
  • that person is manipulative or bossy.

Sadly, it is human nature to judge and compare, but try to remember that the judgment of people should be left to God. This is what the parable is saying.

Don’t judge too hastily, don’t harm others in your zeal to rip out the weeds; wait until the harvest.

So, how does this parable tell us to live now?

The parable says to let the weeds and the wheat grow together until the harvest. Let them grow; wait until they mature. With the weeds, if you let them grow long enough, they show themselves for what they are. The early sprouts of a weed can look like the beginning sprouts of a wheat plant. It’s only with time that we are able to distinguish one from the other.

In this parable, weeds and wheat are not plants but people. And the good part of that is that as children of God, the weeds can change their nature. Someone who is viewed as a ‘weed’ can repent of those things that make them a weed to society and become a positive member of the Kingdom. It isn’t easy, but it can be done.

There are times when we are all wheat – and then weeds. We change and grow.

Are you following the good parts of yourself or are you settling for the “weeds’ in you?

Don’t pull out the weeds.

Don’t judge others around you.

Instead, build up the community. Make sure you are not becoming a weed yourself! Be alert.

So, what are you?

Are you a

stalk of wheat. . .

or a weed?

As I look around you all, I see only a beautiful field wheat – you are all beautiful children of God.

Amen.
 

Delivered at In The Garden, Trinity Episcopal Church On Capitol Square, Columbus, OH 23 July 2017