Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Second Sunday of Easter - April 19, 2009

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.


Diversity. It is the buzz word of our nation, day and time, something we promote and see as good, strengthening our nation, enriching our culture.

If you look up diversity in Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, you find several possible definitions:

Diversity may refer to:

  • Multiculturalism, the ideology of including people of diverse cultural and religious backgrounds
  • Diversity (politics), the political and social policy of encouraging tolerance for people of different backgrounds
  • Diversity (business), the business tactic which encourages diversity to better serve a heterogeneous customer base
  • Diversity training, the process of educating employees, students or volunteers to function in a diverse environment
  • Biodiversity, the variation of life forms within a given ecosystem
  • Diversity scheme, a method for improving the reliability of a message signal by using multiple communications channels
  • Diversity jurisdiction, a concept under which U.S. federal courts can hear suits between parties from different states

All of this sounds very good, doesn’t it? Yet when it comes down to it, while individuals today may find the idea of diversity to be good, the fact is by spending a lot of time focusing on what makes us different from one another, we end up with division instead of diversity.

In today’s gospel reading, we have an illustration of diversity. While some disciples believed in the risen Christ without seeing him for themselves, Thomas did not. He wanted proof, he wanted to see, hear, touch, maybe even smell Jesus himself. And while we only hear about Thomas as being “the doubter”, the one whose faith maybe didn’t even make it to mustard seed size, surely he was not the only one who felt that way. Thomas was probably the public face of all the disciples and followers of Jesus who didn’t immediately believe, maybe even the only one who was honest enough to say what he needed to believe, while others were saying “yes, He is risen” to go along with the flow. And with this division of belief, the disciples were not what you could call a “church” or a “movement”. They weren’t about to do anything, accomplish anything, because they lacked something that we don’t talk about much anymore: unity.

Unity, as a buzzword, seems to have gone out of fashion. Our psalm today opens with the words: Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!

And while we find that inspiring, we usually get lost in the ideas put forward in the rest of the Psalm, that of oil running into people’s beards…to our culture that seems a bit messy, not the sort of thing we want to have happen to us. We spend a lot of money on shampoo to get rid of “oil on the head” why would we want to have it poured there, to drip down onto the collar of our new blouse or tailored shirt?

Originally, oil was used as a medicine in ancient times and by putting flowers and herbs in it, making a perfume that was used to sweeten the atmosphere in cultures where bathing was not done as often as we do today. In the psalm, though, the oil referred to is the oil of anointing, a pleasantly scented oil used to hallow the heads of kings, to confer the special blessing of God on an individual chosen for special service. Today we use a special chrism during our sacrament of baptism to do the same thing, and, like the oil in the psalm, it is a symbol of being set apart, marked as Christ’s own forever.

So unity, to God, is a special blessing, something that he gives us to help us in our work. And when we think of our church today, not just this particular church called St. Elizabeth’s, or our particular Anglican denomination, but the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, that is, the universal church, we can see how far we have strayed from the mark. We’ve got diversity, all right. Drive in either direction from our church and you will find half a dozen other churches on your way to wherever you are going. God’s church has been sliced and diced into all different kinds of forms, hasn’t it? A flavor for every palette, a creed for every comfort level. Don’t like sitting in a pew, preferably as far in the back as you can get, listening quietly, praying quietly and, alas for this music director, singing quietly too? Why, there is a church for you out there, where standing up and shouting “Amen”, dancing in the aisles is encouraged! Don’t want to believe in the actual death and resurrection of Christ? There’s a church for you out there too!

And where does this get us, this massive division in the body, this lack of unity? It gets us nowhere. The work of God goes undone while we spend our time focusing on those things that make us different.

In the reading from Acts which was our first reading today, we can see the metamorphosis that Christ accomplished when he showed himself to Thomas, that public face of the doubt and disbelief of the followers of Jesus. By breathing on, he spiritually anointed them, giving the gift of the Holy Spirit. With that gift, the disciples were united as never before. The disciples went so far as to pool every resource and put all their money together to further the church in the world, to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. This unity allowed them to do quite amazing feats of evangelism, to continue performing the miracles that Christ himself performed and to embrace the gifts of the spirit which God has in store for everyone who believes.

So when did the wheels fall off? Why did we get to where we are now, broken and divided, our witness to the world tainted by internal squabbling, our focus dispersed because of human failings and foibles. What can we do to get back to that glorious age of spiritual unity?

There are many movements in the church today, movements which are defined by the word “ecumenism”. The ecumenical movement in the church today seeks to unite different denominations, allowing us to unite to do the work of Christ. The most profound movement in the Catholic church was made in the Second Vatican Council of 1962. Our own Anglican church seeks to further the cause of ecumenism by seeking communion with like denominations, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Roman Catholic Church. Clearly there are signs that the through ecumenism, the church is moving in the right direction, but it seems to be taking a very long time, doesn’t it?

But while we are waiting for unity in the church as a whole, we certainly can examine our own internal church practices. We don’t need to go so far as to throw all our money into a common pot, selling our houses, possessions and cars and pooling the money, something that didn’t even work that well for the church in Judea which ended up having to be bailed out by the church in Antioch during a time of famine later on. What we do need is that unity of purpose that the early church had, the focus on what it is we are supposed to be doing here in this church, this community, at this time in our history. Unity in our purpose is important to God, as is evident further on in the gospel of John, when Jesus prayed for the disciples, saying, "As you are in me and I am in you, I pray that they can also be one in us".

That unity of purpose can only be restored to us by turning back to the origin of that unity, which is the Holy Spirit. Opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we can achieve the kind of unity that allows us to move mountains. I found this prayer for unity on a website that is devoted to the week in January Christians all over the world spend focusing on Christian unity and invite you to pray with me:

O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Saviour, the Prince of Peace; Give us grace to seriously lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatsoever else may hinder us from godly union and concord: that as there is but one Body and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Third Sunday in Lent - March 15, 2009

John 2:13-22

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me." The Jews then said to him, "What sign can you show us for doing this?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?" But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.


It’s a rite of spring: the beginning of garage sale season, where we get rid of all the items we no longer want in our homes. We set up our tables outside, put out a sign and wait for people to come and buy our unwanted possessions.

In our gospel reading today, we see a similar process going on in God’s house. Jesus isn’t content for the merchants to finish selling their wares, though, before ridding God’s house of some unwanted accoutrements. He turns the tables of the moneychangers and animal vendors over, driving them from the courtyard with a whip; a very dramatic spring cleaning indeed.

Jesus took issue with the money-changers and animal merchants because they were gouging the people who had come from all over Israel to offer their sacrifice and pay their Temple tax for Passover. Each Jewish male aged 12 and over was expected to offer an unblemished male lamb for this sacrifice. It is thought that in Jesus’ day, it would have been impossible to bring an animal of your own, as the priests would not pass any animal that had not been purchased from the merchants in the outer court, who in turn gave a cut of the profits to the priests. The temple tax had to be paid by all worshippers, male and female, slave and free in Jewish coinage of half a shekel. In order to get the correct coinage, the money changers would change the foreign coins brought by the people and charge a fee for doing so, a cut of which would also go to the priests.

Those priests had a going concern, didn’t they? They had set up a false god, the money god, in the place of Jehovah. They were breaking the very first commandment of the God whose temple they were purporting to serve. It was time to turn the tables on these thieves, time to cleanse God’s temple.

How does this apply to us today? The answer to this question is to ask ourselves, “where is God’s temple today?” And the answer is, “Within us.”

We are all God’s temple, as his Holy Spirit lives inside of all of us. And in this season of Lent, the Lord invites us to turn over our tables and to cleanse our temples. We are meant to be examining our consciences for unconfessed sin and to examine our hearts for the hardness that may have crept in over the past year. We are to do our spiritual spring cleaning and find those idols we may have set up in our own hearts in the place where God should be.

And these idols aren’t necessarily the big ones we are all familiar with: the money god, the pride god, the anger god. Just this past Friday superstitious people all over the English-speaking world worried about having “bad luck” because the day of the week happened to coincide with the thirteenth day of the month. Superstition is a kind of idol, isn’t it? We were reminded about this last year before the election, when presidential candidates were invited to turn out their pockets for Time magazine, to see what sort of “good luck” charms they might carry. It seemed to me to be strange for men who professed the Christian faith to carry a lucky poker chip or a statue of a Hindu monkey god in their pockets and to rely on that to bring them “luck”. Here, indeed, we see the foolishness of men’s wisdom, as Paul said, in comparison with God’s wisdom. What need do we have of a piece of plastic or a carved bit of stone, when we are carrying around a piece of God right inside us? If he won’t save us from the “bad stuff”, what can?

Yet, even though we have professed faith in Christ, we still find ourselves avoiding walking under ladders, crossing our fingers and knocking on wood. Some of these superstitious habits have become so automatic, we scarcely realize we are doing them.

Will God condemn us because we happen to still have superstition or some other little idol in our lives, once we have become his? I don’t believe he will. Instead, what God is asking us to do is to get rid of anything that would get in the way of a deeper relationship with him. We are told in our Old Testament reading that God is a jealous God. He wants nothing and no one to come between him and ourselves. He intends for us to turn over those tables, to purify ourselves so that he may be closer to us. Consciously ridding ourselves of the bad habits of superstition is definitely a worthy Lenten project, as we acknowledge that the power over our lives is held by God alone.

Some scholars think that the cleansing of the temple in today’s gospel reading was one of two cleansings. John’s gospel, which we read today, places the cleansing of the temple at the start of Jesus’ ministry. Other gospels place the cleansing towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, soon before he was arrested and crucified. What would it mean if there were two cleansings, instead of just one? It would mean that the merchants in the temple courts went right back to doing what they were doing before and Jesus had to cleanse the temple again.

Sounds familiar doesn’t it? In cleansing our own temples of idols great and small, the real trick is not to turn around and cart everything back inside, once we have gotten rid of it. When we hold a garage sale, do we take everything back inside that we haven’t sold? No! We usually put it in our car and take it to the Salvation Army or call St. Vincent de Paul to come and get it. We already value the space we’ve provided in our homes by taking those things out much more than the money we might receive for selling them.

In our own temples, we need to value the space and light we create in the temple of our hearts during Lent. Let’s not let those idols and sins creep back to clutter up the beauty we’ve created, making it harder for us to draw nearer to God, so that he may draw near to us.

In the hymn “Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates”, sung during the season of Advent, we sing “fling wide the portals of your heart, make it a temple set apart, from earthly use, to heaven’s employ, adorned with prayer and love and joy.” During Advent, we flung those portals wide. During Lent, we clean our temples, making them a fit habitation for the most High God, adorning them with prayer and love and joy. So that when Easter comes, we can sing, “Redeemer come! I open wide my heart to thee, here Lord abide! Let me thine inner presence feel, Thy grace and love in me reveal.”

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany - February 1, 2009

Mark 1:21-28

Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching-- with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.


We hear it from every side these days. On the television, the internet, in books, newspapers and magazines and sometimes even, God help us, in our own churches. Jesus is not the only way to God. Everyone will get there eventually, won’t they? There are many great truths in all religions, so all religions are the same in the end.

And because all religions are the same in the end, does it really matter which one you follow? After all, it’s just enough to be a “good person”, isn’t it? As long as you are a following the “golden rule” and treating people right, that is all that matters. So why do we even need religion? “Hey, Jesus, go away and mind your own business! What have you got to do with us?”

Amazingly enough that is what the demon in our gospel reading today also says to Jesus. Jesus went into the synagogue and was teaching with authority. This was an amazing thing to his listeners, because Jesus was not referring to the scriptures and prefacing his statements with “There is a teaching that reads…” as the scribes who taught in the synagogues would do. He did not bring a host of references to different scriptures or the great teachers on the scriptures to back up his statements. He simply taught with authority. He spoke as one who got his information right from the source, which is what the base word of authority, “author”, means. Jesus, you might say, wrote the book on what he taught. This was a new and entirely different thing for the listeners in the synagogue to hear and they were amazed.

And this lead to Jesus’ first miracle related in the gospel of Mark: the casting out of a demon. The demon recognizes Jesus for who he is and he says something that is literally translated as “What to me and to you?” Which you might say is an ancient way of saying, “Mind your own business!” “You have nothing to do with us!”

The demon was denying the authority of Jesus, even though he knew very well who Jesus was and said so. “The Holy One of God” is what he called him. Not denying that Jesus was the Holy One of God, only denying that Jesus had any authority over demons.

Today, our demons do it differently, don’t they? They work in much subtler ways. If they can deny that Jesus was who he claimed to be, they can work to undermine his authority here on earth. Jesus is to be presented as just another teacher, just a historical figure who said some nice things about how we could all “just get along.” In The Screwtape Letters, a work of fiction by C.S. Lewis, the story of the temptation of a soul is told through a series of letters from one demon, named Screwtape to another, called Wormwood. Screwtape counsels Wormwood that the idea of the “historical Jesus” is always to be encouraged. He writes that the aim is to lead humans to “‘Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.’ That‘s the game.” By confusing humans as to who Jesus really was, to lead us to deny his authority over us, the demons would win more souls away from God.

And the sad thing is that this ploy works so very well. I was reading a blog by a newly minted Episcopalian the other day. She has trouble with the idea that Jesus is the only way to salvation, just as many people do. But the thing that disturbed me was that she went to church and listened to her priest say, “that when Jesus said, “I am the way” he was saying,’LOOK AT ME. Watch me. You see how I am treating people? THIS is the way. This is how God wants you to be. I am here to show you this.’”

It’s what we want to hear, isn’t it? You don’t have to believe that Jesus was THE way as long as you act the way he did. Be a good person. That’s all that is necessary. It’s a fundamental denial of the cross. Jesus didn’t die for our sins, after all. He was here to show us how to behave. That cross part…that was a mistake, or at best, the only way God could show us how serious he was about getting our attention.

This blogger ended by saying, “I was so happy when he (the priest) said that. I believe that.” And that is the problem…we deny Jesus’ authority when we take away the power of the cross to save and substitute it with our own effort to save ourselves. We can’t do it. It is not in us. We reduce Jesus to a mere teacher, sent to show us one way, not THE way. And so we can ignore the things that Jesus said that we don’t particularly like, the things that make us uncomfortable. We can deny that he was the Holy One of God, the Son of God. He becomes a mere prophet, one of many.

The truth is, though, that if we really want to follow Jesus, we will hear things in church that will make us uncomfortable. If you come to church and everything you hear makes you feel happy and safe, you are in the wrong church. Jesus did not go into the synagogue and make people feel happy and safe. He did not speak comfortable words that left his listeners convinced that what they had deeply felt all along was the real truth, did he? That was why the demon told Jesus to “buzz off”. And, in the end, the uncomfortable truth, spoken with authority, is what led to the cross.

Yes, we are to be good people. We are to feed the hungry, comfort those who mourn, visit the sick, clothe the naked. Not because it will save us, but because He wants us to do it. He wants us to become His hands and His feet here, to show His love to a world starving for it, to show THE way to those who are lost. The chances are very good that we will make some people very uncomfortable in the process. And, the great thing is, that if we really want to be like Jesus, we will be treating people exactly as He did.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Second Sunday after Christmas Year B January 4 2008

Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

Now after the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean."


“What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home?” This song written by Eric Bazilian and performed by Joan Osbourne was very popular in 1995, because it asks a question that expresses how the idea of God, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent makes most people feel distant from him. But I don’t think that Ms. Osbourne realized that, yes, God was once one of us, just like anyone you might meet.

In our gospel reading today, Matthew declares that the prophets spoke the words“He will be called a Nazorean.”

The problem is this: what words and which prophets? Because this phrase appears no where in the books that make up what we call the “Old Testament”. So why does Matthew say this?

To know what this means, you have to understand a bit of the history of Nazareth, the town where Joseph took his small family to settle after returning from Egypt. I found the following on a travel website for Israel:

While the site was settled during the period 600-900 BCE, it was too small to be included in the list of settlements of the tribe of Zebulon (Joshua 19:10-16), which mentions twelve towns and six villages. Nazareth is not included among the 45 cities of the Galilee that were mentioned by Josephus, and her name is missing from the 63 towns in Galilee mentioned in the Talmud.It seems that the words of Nathanel of Cana, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (John 1:47) characterized the site's seeming insignificance. It is needless to say that the people of Judea had never heard of Nazareth.

Nazareth, apparently, was synonymous with what we might call “Hicksville” in the US. It was nothing, nowhere. Pilate, when he ordered the cross to be labeled, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”, was pointing out the ridiculous nature of the idea of someone from Nazareth being a king.

So when Matthew says that the prophets said that Jesus would be Nazorean, is most likely referring to those prophecies that pointed out that Jesus would be despised and rejected by the people, such as this prophecy in the book of Isaiah:

He was despised and rejected by people,

one who experienced pain and was acquainted with illness;

people hid their faces from him;

he was despised, and we considered him insignificant (Isaiah 53:3)

By saying that the prophets declared that Jesus would be a Nazorean, Matthew meant that the prophets said that Jesus would be nobody; nobody from nowhere. There was nothing about him that would make him stand out from a crowd. Isaiah said in the verse previous to this one, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” Jesus was truly a nobody from nowhere.

It’s truly amazing that God would choose to send his son here in the guise of nobody from nowhere, isn’t it?

But God has a history of choosing those folks who would not have been voted “most likely to” by their peers. Paul understood this very well and wrote extensively about it in his letters to the Corinthians; in his first letter he wrote.:

27but (C)God has chosen the foolish things of (D)the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of (E)the world to shame the things which are strong,

28and the base things of (F)the world and the despised God has chosen, (G)the things that are not, so that He may (H)nullify the things that are,

And in his second letter:

7To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. 10That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

God chooses weak vessels, “slobs” like us, so that his glory may shine all the more.

Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission, also knew this secret. Once, when complimented by a friend on the impact of the mission, Hudson answered, “It seemed to me that God looked over the whole world to find a man who was weak enough to do His work, and when He at last found me, He said, ‘He is weak enough—he’ll do.’ All God’s giants have been weak men who did great things for God because they reckoned on His being with them.”

So the next time we decide that we aren’t big enough to do the things that God is asking of us, we need to remember that not only does God choose weak people to do his work, but that he sent his son to us as a “nobody” from “nowhere”. God was once just “one of us”.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 21 2008

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.


There’s a popular Christmas song called “Mary Did You Know?” written by Mark Lowry. In the song, Mr. Lowry wonders if Mary knew, when Jesus was a baby, all the things that the child she was holding would do in his lifetime. Did she know that he would walk on water, heal the sick, raise the dead?

I don’t think she did. In today’s reading we hear the angel Gabriel telling Mary that the child she would soon bear would be “holy” and would be called Son of God. He would be given the throne of his ancestor David and reign forever. But there was definitely a lack of specific details, things that would have told Mary more about what was to come. Mary was given information on a “need to know” basis.

And this was definitely a gift. As much as we might like to know the future, if we did know it, we would not act in ways which would bring it about. We would do everything differently.

One of the saddest things I have ever heard was an older woman expressing regret for the path she had chosen in her life. “If I had it all to do over again,” she said, “I would not have gotten married nor had children. I would have pursued my career instead.” This, in spite of the fact that she had more than fifty years of marriage under her belt and had raised two successful children. Yet, apparently if she had known the amount of suffering and unhappiness in store for her within the life she had chosen, she would have chosen differently.

And the sad thing was that chances are that this woman would not have had less sorrow or suffering if she had chosen differently. “In this world you will have trouble.” Jesus said in John 13. We are all bound to have trouble and the woman I am talking about, if she had chosen a different path, would have just had different trouble than she ended up having. It is much like the fable where the people in a village are complaining about their problems and how they wish they didn’t have them. The magical visitor in the story tells the villagers to lay all their problems on the ground in front of them, then invites them to take someone else’s problems instead of their own. The villagers look around, then pick up their own problems again.

It would be nice to know, though, what is going to happen next, wouldn’t it? People today read their horoscopes and consult psychics, all with the hope that they will be able to figure out what is going to happen next. But God has expressly forbidden this, in the book of Deuteronomy, when he says, “You shall follow God with perfect faith [and not] hearken to astrologers and diviners.” (Deuteronomy 18:13-14)

God doesn’t want you peeking into the future for many good reasons. If we knew what the future was, we would act differently than we otherwise would have and we would definitely bolux everything up. This ignorance of the future is a gift to us, just, as I told you in my last sermon, that the ignorance of the day of Christ’s second coming is a gift. If we knew too much about what is to come, we would not act in ways that God wants us to act. We would procrastinate, act to change things to our own advantage and generally, stick a monkey wrench in the plans that God has for us. This is the power of the one of God’s other gifts: the gift of free will. We have the power to change things by the choices we make. It’s a dangerous gift and armed with the knowledge of what the choices we would make will do to the future, we would not have enough wisdom to choose as we should. Therefore, the gift of free will had to be accompanied by the gift of ignorance.

However, if we can’t know everything about what will happen to us, it still would be nice to know a little bit more about what is to come, wouldn’t it? God speaks to many people in biblical history, with angelic visitors as in Mary’s case, and through the prophets. Why doesn’t God do that for everyone?

If you think about all the people who received such announcements, for instance Zachariah in the verses before the ones in today’s reading, or Old Testament folks like Abraham and Sarah when they are told what is going to happen to them, you realize why God isn’t all that forthcoming with specifics. These folks simply did not believe God, did they? They got the word right from the source and they still did not believe. We don’t have the greatest track record for listening to God and believing what he tells us, even when those bringing the news have impeccable credentials. God, as he said in the book of Deuteronomy, is looking for perfect faith. And the Bible is a log book of people who do not have that faith, people who were given many hints, announcements and even explicit plans and directions and disregarded them. Very rarely does God find that perfect faith, people who acquiesce to God’s plans without a murmur or a “Why me?”

But here in our reading we do find that perfect faith: Mary says, “Let it be with me according to your word.” Her only question is not WHY this is happening but HOW it’s going to happen. Mary is one of the very few people God entrusts with such knowledge who simply says, “Yes, I will.” And that makes it clear why she was chosen for such a wonderful gift, yet such a heavy burden. God gave her just enough information to be going on with, without burdening her with the whole knowledge of what was to be. Because if Mary would have known all the wonders that Jesus would perform in his life, she also would have to had known the ignominious death filled with hideous suffering that was also in his future and the anguish she would suffer herself watching him die. It was God’s gift to her, the ignorance of all that was to come.

While we have only gotten the bare bones of the story in Luke’s gospel and we may never know all that Mary knew ahead of time, we can all strive to duplicate that perfect faith that she had. “In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus said in John 13, but went on to say, “But take heart, for I have overcome the world!” Take heart. Have faith. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Second Sunday of Advent Year B December 7 2008

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

"See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way;

the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

`Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight,'"

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."


Talk about job security. Enter John the Baptist, preaching. Obviously, here is a man who knows who he is and what he is supposed to be doing. John is one of the few people connected with Jesus who has this firm sense of identity, a supreme sense of focus on the job at hand. He not only knew who he was, he also knew just who he was NOT. I feel a bit of kinship with John, simply because my name, Janine, is the French female equivalent of John.

But that’s as far as my kinship seems to go. I go through life, trying to figure out just who I am and what I’m supposed to be doing. By contrast, John had probably been told since he was a small child that God had a job for him to do…one of these days. Did John fall right into line with the plan, right from the start? Or did he spend some time during adolescence rolling his eyes at Elizabeth every time she said, “God has a special purpose for you! Remember what I told you about when I met your Aunt Mary and felt you leap in my womb?” Did he rebel against this foreknowledge of his destiny? I’d like to think so…I don’t know many people who haven’t been dragged kicking and screaming into the purpose for which God has destined them. I know I have.

My first jolt of reality came soon after I was married. Maybe it’s not as mind-bending for men, but I think women experience a jolt when their maiden name gets changed to their married name. I can remember having a melt-down one day and tearfully telling my husband, “I don’t know who I am anymore!” Suddenly, my identity depended so much on how another person defined it. I was done making it all up myself as I went along. I probably should have gotten used to it, because discovering that I’m not who I thought I was has happened regularly ever since.

Most of us have this happen. We go through life as our parent’s child, our mate’s spouse, our children’s parent, our company’s employee. In my life I’ve been Tom & Betty’s Janine, Dan’s Janine, Laurel, Emily and William’s Mom, and at the different places I’ve worked, I’ve been their Janine or Ms. Tinklenberg, depending on how formal they liked to be.

But all of these people did not and do not define who I really am. Who I really am is something entirely more. Who we are is more than the sum of our parts.

In the novel “The Stand” by Stephen King, a story very loosely based on biblical prophecies of the Apocalypse, there is a character called Tom Cullen, who is known for spelling everything, “M-O-O-N”. In our politically correct world, these days, we would call Tom “mentally challenged”, but as some mentally challenged people do, Tom had a wisdom that occasionally came out at the most unexpected times. Towards the end of the novel, Tom is being prepared to go as a spy into the area controlled by the Antichrist by the people who oppose him. They decide that it would be best to hypnotize Tom, to better implant the directions that he would need to follow and to prevent Tom from inadvertently letting something slip that would give him away. Tom is amazingly perceptive about the reasons for this once he is under hypnosis, which startles the group. One of them asks him, “Are you the same Tom that Nick met in Oklahoma?”

And Tom answers: Yes. No. I'm God's Tom.

God’s Tom. When it comes right down to it, that IS who we are. I am God’s Janine, just as Karyn is God’s Karyn, and Pete is God’s Pete. As much as other people might lay claim to us, we are ultimately responsible most for being and becoming the person that God wants us to be.

And the truth is that we can’t be truly happy until we find out just what that is. When we bought our house, my husband and I had been married for 7 years. We had always said that we would not have children until we bought a house. All of a sudden, with the purchase of the house, the question of having children was now right in front of us. I also began to feel that, at the place where I worked, I was not valued or important. I realized that if I left, that I would be talked about for a little while, replaced quickly, and then forgotten. Was the company's Janine really who I was? I felt that my life was empty and purposeless. I spent two years struggling with depression, because I didn’t like the identity I had, but was frightened to become anything else. Finally, I decided not to decide. I would let nature decide if we would have children and I would no longer prevent it from happening. Having a child, I felt, would provide me with the purpose that was missing in my life. Once we had that child, we decided that I would leave work to become a full-time stay-at-home mom.

But by trading my employee badge in for my Mom badge, I avoided the whole question of who I really was. I traded one identity, one depression for another identity and another depression, effectively sidestepping the issue. Because once I had children, I suddenly discovered, again, that I was not who I thought I was. Motherhood was not enough for me and I was left groping for an identity that seemed ever more elusive.

When we consider the stereotypical middle aged man having an identity crisis, older couples suffering from “empty nest syndrome” or someone who has just retired from his job trying to find ways to redefine himself from “a company man” to something new and different, we see that it is very common for all of us, at different stages of our lives, to have to search for who we really are. Lily Tomlin said, “I’ve always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific.” If we really want to be specific, we should want to be God’s creation. Because we won’t be truly happy until we start moving towards that end. While having children brought joy to my life, it did not fill the void in my life that I desperately needed to fill, the knowledge of who I really was.

It wasn’t until I turned my life over to Christ in 1997 that I began to discover just who I was and I’m still in the process of discovering it. Unlike John the Baptist, I am not entirely sure what I’m supposed to be doing, but I know that I must be moving in the right direction. I find that the closer I get, the more the activities and things I used to find essential to my happiness become less essential. I find the grip that these things have on me grows weaker as the grip that God has on me grows stronger.

I am, like we all are, a work in process. Paul wrote, in his second letter to the Corinthians, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” But the new doesn’t always come as fast as we might like, does it? Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus sounds much easier, sometimes, that our struggle to make sense of what God means for us to become. John had such certainty in his mission; why can’t we have that too?

However, unlike Paul and John, God usually chooses to do his work on us gradually, conquering the strongholds that sin has established in our lives, easing us out of the lives that sin has scarred and pushing us, sometimes gently, but sometimes roughly, towards the realization of the destiny that he holds in trust for us. Paul, observing this process in the churches that looked to him for guidance, wrote in his letter to the Philippians "For I am confident in this, that He who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Christ Jesus"

By opening ourselves up to the working of the Holy Spirit, we will find ourselves changing to become God’s people first and foremost. Our certainty and confidence in who we really are will grow. The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” By following the Lord’s plans for us, we will discover our true identity, our hope and our future. We will still be our parents’ children, our children’s parents, our mate’s spouses, and, until we retire, our companies’ employees. But when we put God’s purpose first, we’ll find that these other roles become much more fulfilling than they ever were before because they will work through his purpose rather than against it. By becoming God’s people, we truly prepare the way for the coming of the Lord, for his Advent into our world. May we all make his paths straight.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

First Sunday of Advent Year B - November 30 2008

Mark 13:24-37

Jesus said to his disciples, "In those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,

and the moon will not give its light,

and the stars will be falling from heaven,

and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see `the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

"From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

"But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake-- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."


It is something I have observed on many occasions, as I am sure many of you, as parents, have also observed. You tell your children that there is a task they must do. You give them a time that it must be done by in order for something good to happen, perhaps, a visit to the library or a trip to the zoo. Then you leave them to it, walk away and get busy with tasks of your own.

You may walk back a little while later, just to check on how it’s going. To your dismay, your children not only have not started the task, they are playing a game. “Aren’t you going to do what I asked?” you say. And they reply, “Don’t worry! We’ll do it as soon as we’re done playing this game! We have lots of time!”

And of course, twenty minutes before the allotted time, you again return to see if the task is done and in panic, they look at you, look at the clock and start doing the task in a big hurry, because they have left it way too late.

Perhaps this is why the Father did not tell us, through Jesus, just when he would return. Precisely because we, as a human species, tend to put things off until it’s too late. Not everyone procrastinates as badly as children do; quite a few of us learn that putting things off until tomorrow the things that should be done today is not a good thing. So we spend a great deal of effort to try to do things that need to be done when they need to be done. But none of us are perfect at it. If we knew the time of the Master’s return, we might simply choose to do what we wanted to do, rather than those things which God wants us to do; to choose our own way over God’s way, much of the time.

But, the point is, that we don’t know precisely when Christ will return. Because God knows humans better than we know ourselves, the gift of not knowing the hour of Jesus’ return is one of the greatest gifts we have ever received. Because we do not know, we should feel the need to work at preparing for his return as if it were going to happen tomorrow, today, next week. We shouldn’t put off sharing the gospel with our family, friends or with strangers either, because tomorrow it might be too late.

The early Christians operated under this principal. That is why we see them sharing everything in common in the book of Acts. Why keep anything if the Lord would be returning at any minute? Surely there was no need to save for tomorrow, since likely tomorrow would bring the glorious return of our Savior! Didn’t Jesus say that this generation would not pass away before his return?

But their generation DID pass away and we have come to know that when Jesus said “this generation” that he didn’t mean it the way his original listeners thought he did. It is more probable that he meant that the generation that would not pass away before he returned was the generation that would see the signs of the end that Jesus gave us. Have we ceased to watch for the signs of his coming? Have we grown lax in our watchfulness? Have we forgotten the signs?

There is an interesting, though probably unintended, parallel in the the book “The Silver Chair”, one of the series The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. In the book, one of the main characters, Jill Pole, is given signs by Aslan by which she and Eustace, her companion from our world, will recognize the lost Prince Rillian of Narnia when they find him. Aslan tells Jill, “But, first, remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there.”

As you might expect, what ends up happening is that Jill eventually forgets to repeat the signs to herself. She lets the physical concerns of cold, hunger and sleeping on the ground get in the way of remembering the signs. A warm bed, a place out of the wind, and a full stomach become much more important to her. The signs are forgotten, only to be remembered when it is almost too late.

How about us? Have we spent too much of our time concerned with earthly problems like how we are going to pay the bills, mow the grass or repair the roof? How can we know when we are getting close to the return of Christ? Do we even know or remember what the signs are?

I’d like to share this, from the April 1989 edition of the devotional, “Today in the Word”:

"Biblical prophecy provides some of the greatest encouragement and hope available to us today. Just as the Old Testament is saturated with prophecies concerning Christ’s first advent, so both testaments are filled with references to the second coming of Christ. One scholar has estimated that there are 1,845 references to Christ’s second coming in the Old Testament, where 17 books give it prominence. In the 260 chapters of the New Testament, there are 318 references to the second advent of Christ—an amazing 1 out of every 30 verses. Twenty-three of the 27 New Testament books refer to this great event. For every prophecy in the Bible concerning Christ’s first advent, there are 8 which look forward to His second!"

The most amazing prophecy of the second advent has already taken place: it is the reformation of the nation Israel in 1948 as was prophesied in Isaiah 66:8, in Ezekiel 37 and in our own reading today when Jesus said, "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” What is hidden in Jesus’ words for us is that the fig tree was, and still is today, a symbol for the nation of Israel.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 24 that before his return that the gospel would be preached to all nations, something which we are very close to achieving, if we have not already achieved it. He tells us that there will be wars, rumors of wars, famine, pestilence and earthquakes. Granted, these things have always been in the world, leading some to look for Christ’s return in every generation. While there may not be more of these things today, I believe what Jesus meant was that we would be more aware of them. And as anyone can see, the increasing power of the media today to report these sorts of news stories to us allows us to be aware of more of them than we ever could before.

These signs, and more that I don’t have time to mention today, were given to us, that we might know when we were getting close. Therefore, we really do need to heed the words of the reading: “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”

But even though we may be approaching that day, we have no need to be afraid. If we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, we have no need to fear the return of the Master. It is what we have been, in what has seemed a very slow and grinding process, working our way towards for the past 2000 years.

Now, more than ever, we must be awake. Any procrastination we may have been indulging in must be forgotten. While it may not happen today or tomorrow, next month, next year or ten years from now, we should be working as if it will happen at any moment.

In this season of Advent, as we await the symbolic coming of the Christ child, let us not forget the more important waiting that we have done for centuries: the wait for the return of Christ. “Therefore, keep awake-- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."