A Moment in Time

This blog entry comes from my sermon preached at Good Shepherd on the Hill, Austin Texas, on the First Sunday after Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Let us pray. Almighty God, in this time of darkness, give us the light we need to see our path in a world of confusion and fear. Lead us to those places where your voice can reach us above the noise of distraction; and may we create a moment of quiet in which to hear you. Amen

The Gospel reading:  Matthew 3:13-17

Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

A Moment in Time

 Today I want to talk to you about the Church Calendar.  Now, everybody, relax.  I know this is a terrifyingly titillating topic for a Sunday morning.  Let me assure you:  if you had a good night’s sleep, eaten a nutritionally dense breakfast and took your blood pressure meds, you will be all right.  I will walk you through this and all will be well.

Now, to our topic for this morning:  The Church Calendar

 We love calendars!  We are obsessed with them.  Google “calendars,” and you will find hundreds of 2020 calendars available for purchase:  simple ones, decorative ones, business ones, all styles, sizes and shapes.

All of them have one thing in common.  They are Gregorian calendars, the international standard first introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory.  While there are at least 40 other calendars in the world, the one internationally used calendar is the Gregorian Calendar.

So back to my first observation:  We appear to be obsessed with them!  My take on obsession is this.  Obsession goes deeper than just liking something; it has unconscious implications as well.  For example, we all love how our calendar is organized and convenient; and how it allows us to keep track of important dates, appointments, work commitments, errands, on and on.

On a deeper level, however, it appears to protect us from insecurities, unconscious fears and needs.  For example, most of us have some fear of the unknown, for which we employ an arsenal of control behaviors to protect us.   Our calendar is one of them! It offers us a reprieve from this fear.  We develop a conviction that once an event is on the calendar, it will happen as we planned.  It provides a sense of knowing what will happen next, shielding us from the fear of the unknown.   And most significantly, it deceives us into thinking that we are capable of managing a phenomenon that in reality, no one can predict or control, the phenomenon that haunts our nights and frazzles our days.  That phenomenon is Time.

Now I know how long a second is; and that 60 seconds make a minute; and 60 minutes make an hour; and 24 hours make a day; and seven days make a week. It sounds so orderly and contained and predictable.  It’s always the same, day to day, person to person.  And yet, is it?  How do you explain that one person will tell you time flies; while the next says it crawls.  Why does it take forever for a traffic light to turn green yet on the same day, for the same person, time races past him as he attempts to finish a task before deadline?

  That’s not all.  Despite the constants:  60 seconds in a minute; 60 minutes in an hour, these are only constants as we look at them in the present tense.  Time is also cumulative; it has a past and a present.  Which means we don’t all have the same time, do we?  When you hear, oh, you have all the time in the world, what does that mean, when at the time of birth, one person has decades to live and another has only hours. And if you consider the same question asked at this split second, how would you answer?   Do you have decades yet to live? Or years? Or frighteningly only hours?  We don’t know! And there is no way of controlling for or predicting how much time anyone has in the world.

With that unsettling thought, let us turn our attention to the Church Calendar also known as the Liturgical Calendar.

The Church Calendar is similar to the Gregorian with its 365 days split somewhat evenly into twelve months, fifty-two weeks, holidays and seasons. That is where the similarities end and the differences begin.  Recall the enormous New Year’s celebrations just twelve days ago? On the Church Calendar, New Year’s Day was just a blip on the screen in the middle of Christmas.  For us the new year started the first Sunday of Advent that four-week season devoted to preparations for the celebration of Christmas.  And unlike the Gregorian Calendar where Christmas is a one-day event, the Church Calendar devotes twelve days to Christmas.   After Christmas, the calendar follows the life of Christ as we mark Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost, back to Advent.

While the Gregorian Calendar tracks and organizes our life through days, weeks, and months, the Church Calendar tracks our soul journey through the life of Christ.  And while the Gregorian Calendar does its best to manage time, only the Church Calendar dares to take into account that one expression of time that defies containment, definition or categorization.  It is nowhere on the Gregorian Calendar.  It remains invisible, mystical, and profound.  It is the Moment.  

Epiphany is the season of the Moment; that moment when something happens that catches us unaware, that illuminates our understanding, that transforms our perspective on life and self, on God and our faith; that moves us.

Unlike Advent and Christmas that come with extensive to-do lists for us, Epiphany is the season when God has the extensive to-do list; when God does all the work.  He picks the time and the setting to provide content for an Epiphany.  He sets up the scene and supplies the props.  He auditions and picks the players.  And he does the talking.  You see, we can’t make an epiphany.   Only God can orchestrate an epiphany.

That’s why Jesus showed up at the Jordan River where his cousin was baptizing folks and asked John to baptize him.  Now John knew that Jesus was not seeking the baptism he had to offer.  His baptism was a baptism of repentance, and as far as anyone knew, Jesus didn’t need that.  Jesus needed an Epiphany baptism so he made himself available where there was a good chance that God would be likely to speak.  Jesus needed clarification and confirmation as to his identity and his destiny.  John’s water was not powerful enough to do that.  Nonetheless, Jesus prevailed upon him and John consented. 

God picked the River Jordan.  God supplied an audience and the water and the words of John, and he picked John the Baptist even before the man was born.  John baptized Jesus, and as Jesus rose out of the water, John stepped away and God took over.  He opened the heavens and sent his mystical messenger that Holy Ghost Dove to alight on Jesus, and then God spoke.  Jesus listened.  He paid attention.  He wasn’t distracted; he knew something was happening and he paid attention to his Heavenly father’s words. “This is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 

That Epiphany confirmed for Jesus his identity and his destiny.  At that moment, Jesus knew exactly who He was and what he was destined to be and do.  And when he experienced his epiphany, so do we.  Not only was Jesus’s identity confirmed for him; it was confirmed for us as well.

I think that Jesus was expecting something when he approached John the Baptist that day.  He may not have known precisely what or when, but he made himself available, and paid attention.  I would wager that you made yourself available here today, in hopes of an epiphany.  In hopes of hearing something that might illuminate your life path; that might re-define your perspective on life; re-define your identity and destiny.  Maybe something in the sermon?  In the powerful Scripture Frank just read? or the lyrics of a song that Sam picked?  Or in the words of a prayer Kathy offered up for us?

It can happen!  I’d suggest you came to the right place.  You have to be here next week too when Kathy is baptizing baby Lucia.  You will witness it.   Take notice.  Pay attention.  When Kathy calls that Holy Ghost Dove into this place to touch the water in the baptismal font, it will happen.  The Holy Spirit will be here, swirling around the room, hovering over the water, transforming it into something so powerful, that when touched to Lucia’s forehead will transform her into God’s precious daughter for life, cleansed from sin and born again to continue forever in the life of Jesus – Don’t miss it!

And what about communion?  When Kathy offers up the communion prayer, do you hear what she asks God to do?  She asks Him to send his Dove down to us, to touch the bread and wine, to transform them into food so powerful that it nourishes us to live forever in Christ!  When you hear that word, SANCTIFY, prepare yourself!  Pay attention.  There’s an epiphany about to swirl around you.

You can miss it if you’re not paying attention. Maybe you’re mentally making your list for after-church grocery shopping during the communion prayer.  Maybe you are distracted by the cute babies during the baptismal prayer.  If that’s the case, do not despair.  You have all the time in the world, right? . . . . Well, you always have next Sunday, right? hmmm . . . Or tomorrow?  Maybe?  Hey, no worries. God always gives us another chance.  He does not despair.   Just don’t let time get away from you, because while God may have all the time in the world, we obviously do not.

For that reason, I’d suggest we make ourselves available to the times and places where God is most likely to speak.  Like Jesus did.  Make yourself available in worship, prayer, song and quiet.   Immerse yourself in God’s creations:  nature, music, art, and space.  God has been known to speak through them.  And when you are in those places, don’t pick up your phone.  Don’t check the calendar.  Don’t click on the remote.  Don’t go grab a bag of chips.

 Instead, be still.  Be brave.  Quiet your mind.  Listen for the fluttering of a dove’s wings.  Lift your face to feel the breath of the Spirit.  Wait for the silent words of God. 

Somewhere in time there will be your moment.  Pay attention.  Listen.  It’s coming.   And when it does, everything will change.  And you will have all the time in the world.  You will have eternity, and nothing will be the same.  Amen.

The Season of Advent

We call Advent the quiet Season of Waiting.  Yet so many distractions      rudely interrupt our silent nights.

I’m not talking about distractions like jazzy  renditions of Christmas songs  piping through loud speakers everywhere.

I’m not talking about nasal noisy  complaints about the disgraceful  commercialization of Christmas.

I am talking about turbulence, . . . everywhere from weather to politics. 

Now I don’t know much about weather patterns in ancient times, although I imagine  earthquakes and the great flood could count as environmental  turbulence. 

I do know for sure the political environment leading up to the birth of Christ was turbulent. 

It pervaded the lives of  everyone, filtering all the way down to Mary and Joseph’s quiet home.  Mary was close to delivery with her first child.  And, she had to do what?  Walk miles to Bethlehem for a what? A census??  And once there, where do we stay?  Did you make reservations?   No?  Seriously?            

Now, that my friends, is turbulence! And like ours, it was bad!

As we face the turbulence in our lives today may we, like Mary take the hard walk and the bumpy ride as we wait for deliverance. And again like Mary, may  we then revel in the light of her son’s birth and graciously greet visitors who come calling with gifts and good wishes.

 And my we find our voice to sing with her,  

My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.                                  

Merry Christmas!

From the Dead

Revelation 7:9-17

After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.  . . .

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

 

From the Dead

 Memories drifting,
Swirling softly in the morning mist,
Dreams, recollections of
Holding the hands of the dying,
Praying.
Crying in the dark,
I see them.

My brother
Sparkling soulful eyes,
Golden freckles, sweetness.

The father of my son
Tormented in the chaos of
The life he created,
The life that ended him.

A friend, tall, lean, weathered,
Finding happiness in the Lord
Before her life was snuffed out.

A friend
Betrayed by her body
Unable this time to fight
The cancer that stole her away
From the family she loved.

My own father saddened
By his lonely ending
Yet always knowing there were
those who loved him.

Memories coaxing me
from sleep to waking,
I rose from the bed,
Pulled my robe close,
Walked to the kitchen
Poured a cup of coffee,
Turned on the radio.

“Happy All Saints Day to you."
The host announced.
"It’s a favorite holiday of mine,
A time we set aside for
Remembering family and friends,
Considering and honoring
those we love who went before us.”


I'd forgotten.
Between sleep and waking,
Between spiritual and earthly,
Between rational and irrational
There lies that space we call Spirit.
It knows the movement
That defines our life,
That defines the days and nights
of souls and saints,
Who having endured the great ordeal,
Now sing and dance in the presence of the Lamb.
Except on this night, when
The Spirit brings them to us in memories,
Swirling in the mist
Of dreams and recollections.

When it calls us to consider those
We loved, sleep will not protect us.
We cannot escape its call
As we reach through the mist
To touch them, once loved, now dead
To be assured that they are in a better place,
To be assured they will prepare a place
For the time when we join them,
To be assured they will give us
the courage always to love,
And love again.

In life and in death
In joy and in grief
We will love.


2019

 

The Wall Within

Amos 7:7-10

He showed me:  Behold the Lord was standing by a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.  And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “Behold I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel.  I will never again pass by them; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

We pray.

Thank you Lord for bringing us in safety to this new day.                                    Strengthen us that we are not overcome by adversity, temptation or prosperity.  And in all that we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose.                                     We pray in the name of your Son.  Amen

The Wall Within

 Nestled deep within the bowels of the old testament is a short,                       eight chapter book written by the renegade prophet, Amos.  He was             one of the early ones even though he never declared himself a                        prophet. He didn’t come from a priestly tribe or family.  He was                         a man of the earth, a shepherd and a trimmer of trees. And he was                      a man of fearless faith which is probably why God picked him                                to leave his village south of Jerusalem and travel north to the kingdom         of Israel.

In Judah where Amos lived, people took their religion seriously.  They lived frugal lives and worked hard.  In the northern kingdom of Israel, people took their religion less seriously.  Under the rule of Jeroboam, they had grown financially prosperous; they felt privileged and  entitled.  Instead of using their gifts to help others, they exploited and discarded the poor and needy.  God abhorred their meaningless  and shallow piety. He was fed up with their blatant immorality and disregard of justice; and He held them responsible for the mistreatment of others.

So, who do you call when it’s time to preach harsh words in a smooth season?  God called Amos.

Amos took his job seriously.  He was unsophisticated, not easily impressed, and tough.  He pulled no punches.   So terrifying were his words, that the King’s own priest Amaziah pleaded, you’ve got to leave here. The people cannot tolerate what you are saying.

His plea did not deter Amos.  Chapters one through six of his book were filled with indictments against Israel and their neighbors.  He cited family violence, torture, murder, sexual exploitation, rejection of God’s law, lies, hypocrisy, mistreatment of the poor, immorality, sexual exploitation of women, and repression of the prophets.  For these atrocities, all citizens would suffer military defeats, destruction of the land, slaughter, torture, famine and exile. 

Chapter seven continued with five visions in each one of which God employs a symbol of the destruction to come, “Thus the Lord God showed me.”

Our scripture for today is the third of the five predictions. God asks Amos, what do you see?  Amos answered, a plumb line.  For those of you familiar with construction you know about this ancient tool still found in the toolboxes of professional builders and amateur DIY folks. If you want a strong wall, you want a wall that is straight up and down; perfectly perpendicular to its foundation. To achieve that, you employ a plumb line.  It’s a simple yet ingenious tool, consisting of a long cord.  At one end, there is a ring to hold or attach to a nail; at the other end a pointed weight, or bob.   The point at which the bob rests is where the stud is secured.  Only when the wall is straight or plumbed correctly will it be strong enough to withstand environmental strain and demands.

 In this prediction, God tells Amos that he is going to use the plumb line to build a strong wall between his people and himself.  The wall would serve to block his presence from them forever. Now, I am quite sure God knew he did not have to build a wall to accomplish that end.  His people had already done that!  Add to that, God historically had shown himself much more adept at tearing down walls, than building walls.  Think about the infamous walls of Jericho! 

 God knew that when his people had hardened their heart against others, they had hardened their heart against Him.  You see, it is our behaviors that are the building blocks of a wall within us that distances us from God. How many times do we hear folks say they don’t feel the presence of God in their life anymore, as though it’s God’s fault, as though God had wandered away. Amos would counter that idea with blunt questions, “What have you been doing?  How are you treating your loved ones, your neighbors, or strangers in need?  How’s your worship and prayer life going?

 There are those who wonder why we still bother to read and study these ancient texts.  If you are one of them, consider the relevance of Amos’s words to our society today.  To do so, we must read between the lines if we are courageous enough to do so.  If not, skip down to the last couple paragraphs.  Otherwise, here it is.

As long as we persecute minorities, immigrants, the homeless, poor and powerless, we are indicted.

As long as our newspapers are filled with stories of neglect, family abuse, violence and murder, we are indicted.  

As long as an angry man with a military assault rifle is allowed to walk down the street into a school, church, store, or gathering of any kind to murder indiscriminately, we are indicted.

As long as people get away with treating each other in disrespectful, hurtful, critical ways, we are indicted. 

As long as we discriminate against groups of people, oppressing them because of gender, age, nationality, color, or lifestyle, we are indicted.  

As long as we take our religion casually, placing it low on our list of priorities, and crassly behaving in ways that contradict our professed belief and that rain down shame and disrespect upon our church, we are indicted.

As long as hate, prejudice, and disregard for others are so woven into our culture that it is part of our identity, – and we remain silent, we are indicted.

 We are indicted just as clearly as were the early Hebrew citizens of Israel and surrounding communities. And like them, we too will suffer for the sins of our society.  We too will be left standing on the dark side of the wall, separating us from God.

For us though, it is not the end of the story.  Amos doesn’t leave us there, nor does God. God won’t allow us to wander lost in darkness despite the indictments leveled against us.  He didn’t do it to the kingdom of Israel, and he won’t do it to us.  Instead he calls us to examine our soul, to pray for strength and direction, to change the course of our life and ultimately the course of our society.  To do that, we must begin by tearing down the walls within us, the walls we built.

Speaking through Amos in the last few verses of his book, God promises that when we do so, He will raise up the fallen broken house of his people and rebuild it. We are the broken house; we will be raised up and rebuilt to live fully in the presence of God. Even creation will be restored “Behold the days are coming when the mountains will drip with sweet wine and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.”

When that happens, no wall can separate us from God.  The only wall in our life now is constructed of building blocks of love to protect and guide us to the light.  We won’t know the route God has in mind for us.  What we do know is that He has provided us the way to get there.  We just place our hand on His wall, turn our face forward and move.  Some of us will move quickly, others more slowly; whatever the pace, our progress will be sure.  The path may be uneven with pits and stones, but we won’t fall as long as we are supported by the wall.  When we get tired, we lean against it.  It’ll hold us; it’s strong, perfectly plumbed.  Just keep moving, secure in the knowledge that as long as we depend on the wall God made, we will not go off course.  We will not be overcome by adversity, temptation or prosperity.  We will not lose our way.

Once there, we will enter into the kingdom of light secure in the presence of God, free of fear.  We will live in a land where mountains drip with sweet wine and the valleys yield plenteous gardens.  We will share in the bountiful harvest of God’s love, never again left to stand alone, indicted and lost on the dark side of the wall.

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We pray, Thank you Lord for bringing us safely to this new day.                               Strengthen us so that we are not overcome by adversity, temptation or prosperity.  And always, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose.                         We pray in the name of your Son.  Amen

The Wall Within

 Nestled deep within the bowels of the old testament is a short,                       eight chapter book written by the renegade prophet, Amos.  He was             one of the early ones even though he never declared himself a                        prophet. He didn’t come from a priestly tribe or family.  He was                        a man of the earth, a shepherd and a trimmer of trees. And he was                 a man of fearless faith which is probably why God picked him                       to leave his village south of Jerusalem and travel north to the            kingdom of Israel.

In Judah where Amos lived, people took their religion seriously.  They lived frugal lives and worked hard.  In the northern kingdom of Israel, people took their religion less seriously.  Under the rule of Jeroboam,    they had grown financially prosperous; they felt privileged and              entitled.  Instead of using their gifts to help others, they exploited          and discarded the poor and needy.  God abhorred their meaningless        and shallow piety. He was fed up with their blatant immorality and disregard of justice; and He held them responsible for the                    mistreatment of others.

So, who do you call when it’s time to preach harsh words in a smooth season?  God called Amos.

Amos took his job seriously.  He was unsophisticated, not easily impressed, and tough.  He pulled no punches.   So terrifying were his words, that the King’s own priest Amaziah pleaded, you’ve got to leave here. The people cannot tolerate what you are saying.  

His plea did not deter Amos.  Chapters one through six of his book were filled with indictments against Israel and their neighbors. To name a few, he cited family violence, torture, murder, sexual exploitation, rejection of God’s law, lies, hypocrisy, mistreatment of the poor, immorality, sexual exploitation of women, and repression of the prophets.  For these atrocities, all citizens would suffer as a result military defeats, destruction of the land, slaughter, torture, famine and exile. 

Chapter seven continued with five visions in each one of which God employs a symbol of the destruction to come, “Thurs the Lord God showed me.”

Our scripture for today is the third of five predictions. God asks Amos, what do you see?  Amos answered, a plumb line.  For those of you familiar with construction you know about this ancient tool still found in the toolboxes of professional builders and amateur DIY folks. If you want a strong wall, you want a wall that is straight up and down; perfectly perpendicular to its foundation. To achieve that, you employ a plumb line.  It’s a simple yet ingenious tool, consisting of a long cord.  At one end, there is a ring to hold or attach to a nail; at the other end a pointed weight, or bob.   The point at which the bob rests is where the stud is secured.  Only when the wall is straight or plumbed correctly will it be strong enough to withstand environmental strain and demands.

In this prediction, God tells Amos that he is going to use the plumb line to build a strong wall between his people and himself.  The wall would serve to block his presence from them forever. Now, I am quite sure God knew he did not have to build a wall to accomplish that end.  His people had already done that!  Add to that, God historically had shown himself much more adept at tearing down walls, than building walls.  Think about the infamous walls of Jericho! 

 God knew that when his people had hardened their heart against others, they had hardened their heart against Him.  You see, it is our behaviors that are the building blocks of a wall within us that distances us from God. How many times do we hear folks say they don’t feel the presence of God in their life anymore, as though it’s God’s fault, as though God had wandered away. Amos would counter that idea with blunt questions, “What have you been doing?  How are you treating your loved ones, your neighbors, or strangers in need?  How’s your worship and prayer life going?    

There are those who wonder why we still bother to read and study these ancient texts.  If you are one of them, consider the relevance of Amos’s words to our society today.  To do so, we must read between the lines if we are courageous enough to do so.  If not, skip down to the last couple paragraphs.  Otherwise, here it is. 

As long as we persecute minorities, immigrants, the homeless, poor and powerless, we are indicted. 

As long as our newspapers are filled with stories of neglect, family abuse, violence and murder, we are indicted.  

As long as an angry man with a military assault rifle is allowed to walk down the street into a school, church, store, or gathering of any kind to murder indiscriminately, we are indicted.

As long as people treat each other in disrespectful, hurtful, critical ways, we are indicted. 

As long as we discriminate against groups of people, oppressing them because of gender, age, nationality, color, or lifestyle, we are indicted.  

As long as we take our religion casually, placing it low on our list of priorities, and crassly behaving in ways that contradict our professed belief and that rain down shame and disrespect upon our church, we are indicted.

As long as hate, prejudice, and disregard for others are so woven into our culture that it is part of our identity, – and we remain silent, we are indicted.

 We are indicted just as clearly as were the early Hebrew citizens of Israel and surrounding communities. And like them, we too will suffer for the sins of our society.  We too will be left standing on the dark side of the wall, separating us from God.

For us though, it is not the end of the story. Amos doesn’t leave us there, nor does God. God won’t allow us to wander lost in darkness despite the indictments leveled against us.  He didn’t do it to the kingdom of Israel, and he won’t do it to us.  Instead he calls us to examine our soul, to pray for strength and direction, to change the course of our life and ultimately the course of our society.  To do that, we must begin by tearing down the walls within us, the walls we built.

Speaking through Amos in the last few verses of his book, God promises that when we do so, He will raise up the fallen broken house of his people and rebuild it. We are the broken house; we will be raised up and rebuilt to live fully in the presence of God. Even creation will be restored “Behold the days are coming when the mountains will drip with sweet wine and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.”

When that happens, no wall can separate us from God.  The only wall in our life now is constructed of building blocks of love to protect and guide us to the light.  We won’t know the route God has in mind for us.  What we do know is that He has provided us the way to get there.  We just place our hand on the wall, turn our face forward and move.  Some of us will move quickly, others more slowly; whatever the pace, our progress will be sure.  The path may be uneven with pits and holes, but we won’t fall as long as we are supported by the wall.  When we get tired, we lean against it.  It’ll hold us; it’s strong, perfectly plumbed.  Just keep moving, secure in the knowledge that as long as we depend on the wall God made, we will not go off course.  We will not be overcome by adversity, temptation or prosperity.  We will not lose our way.

Once there, we will enter into the kingdom of light secure in the presence of God, free of fear, indictments and punishments.  We will live in a land where mountains drip with sweet wine and the valleys yield plenteous gardens.  We will share in the bountiful harvest of God’s love, never again left to stand alone, indicted and lost on the dark side of the wall.

Amen

 

 

 

 

A Sound of Silence

Chapter 19 of 1 Kings

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

We pray:

          As the deer longs for the water brooks so longs my soul for you, oh God.  When shall I come into your presence?  Amen.

A Sound of Silence

  You might want to read that scripture again.  Maybe, even read it out loud if you are somewhere alone, without an audience.  It is so powerful a visual, I want you to “see it,” feel it, fully experience it. Go ahead.  Take a moment.

          Incredible, isn’t it.

 The scripture reading comes in the middle of a time of struggle and fear in the life of Elijah.  He has managed to get himself crosswise with Queen Jezebel, who has ordered his imminent death. In desperation, he flees into the wilderness.  He is in despair.

He comes upon a broom tree, leans against it, and moans, “I’m done. I have done everything as you instructed, God and they won’t listen. I give up. I’m ready to die.  Just let me die right here.”  He lies down under the tree and falls into a deep and troubled sleep.  He doesn’t die.  Instead an angel comes to him with a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water.  He eats and falls back to sleep.  Another angel appears, again with food and water; and this time with the admonition that he eat all of it as he will need sustenance for a 40-day hike to Mount Horeb.  There, the angel promises, God will make his presence known to him.

When an angel tells you what to do, you do it.  And Elijah did as he was told.  Once at the mountain, he hears the voice of God asking, “Why are you here?”  Elijah repeated his frustration and disappointment in God’s people; and his overpowering sense of failure.  In response, God assures Elijah that he is coming.

Elijah stands on the mountain and waits.  First comes a ferocious wind that splits mountains and breaks rocks.  Then an earthquake and then a fire, but the Lord was in none of them.

Reading these verses, I found myself humming a song by Paul Simon who wrote many memorable songs.  Probably the most was “The Sound of Silence.”  I wonder if he was thinking about Elijah when he wrote, “In restless dreams I walked alone/ Narrow streets of cobblestone/ ’Neath the halo of a streetlamp/ I turned my collar to the cold and damp/ When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light/ That split the night/ And touched the sound of silence.”

It was in the sound of sheer silence that God made his presence known to Elijah.  Not to say, that God has never used extraordinary ways to manifest his presence.  Just last week, we celebrated Pentecost when the Holy Spirit introduced himself to the disciples in a ferocious wind and tongues of fire.  We all know the world-wide destructive flood that God used to stop the toxic spread of evil in his creation.  And perhaps the most gut-wrenching example was the expression of God’s anguish at his Son’s violent death, with an earthquake that opened graves and split in two the curtain of the temple.

Even today, severe storms, floods, earthquakes, and fires cause many to wonder if such events are signs from God.   For Elijah however, God’s presence was not in any of those.  It was within silence that God spoke and in so doing, restored Elijah’s purpose in life, his hope and direction with the words, “Go back to where you are needed.”  Elijah got it. 

Today, I wonder what we miss.  What is God whispering in our ear that could restore our purpose in life, our hope, our direction?  And we don’t get it?  We simply can’t hear because it’s just too noisy?   And the paradox is that most of that noise is what we ourselves manufacture because we are uncomfortable with silence.  We don’t know where it will take us, so we turn to a neon god of loud, chaotic noise.  “And the people bowed and prayed/ To the neon god they made/ and the sign flashed out its warning/ In the words that it was forming/ And the sign said, ‘The words of the prophets/ Are written on the subway walls/ and tenement halls/ and whispered in the sounds of silence.”

I don’t know where you will seek the words of the prophets.  Maybe it will be in subways or tenement halls, or church. Or maybe you will find them in the shade of a broom tree.  All you need is courage and a burning thirsty desire, “As the deer longs for the water brook, so longs my soul for you, Oh God.” 

When the silence finds you, – and it will, – don’t run away. Stay there!  It is just a matter of time before you, like all the prophets before you, will hear God whispering, telling you where He wants you to be and the reassurance that he will give you whatever you need to get there. 

Like Elijah, we might need courage in the face of fear, strength for a body weakened by sleepless nights, encouragement in the aftermath of failure, energy to replace lethargy and frustration, and a powerful hope that because we rest in the presence of God, all will be well. This hope will have the power of a ferocious mountain-splitting wind, a shattering screaming earthquake, and a burning fire to purge away all shreds of despair that would block God’s vision for us.

And all of that . . . in the sheer silence where even the whispers of God are heard.

Shh, listen.

Got it?

Amen

The Trinity Mystery

June 16, 2019

Trinity Sunday

Let us pray:

Glory and praise be to the Trinity:

to God the Father, heaven’s mighty Lord,

to God the Son, the Father’s Holy Word;

to God the Spirit, by whose light we see;

thus it was, is, and will be, day and night,

from age to age, into the endless light.

Romans 5:1-5

Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?

On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;

beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:

“To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.

Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.

When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.

Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth–

when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.

When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,

when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,

when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,

when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;

and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,

rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.”

John 16:12-15

Jesus said to the disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

The Trinity Mystery

I have a confession to make.  I have a passion.  I love murder mysteries. You may laugh but let me tell you how much I love murder mysteries. I love them so much that when the church calendar rolls around to Lent and we are asked to consider our Lenten discipline, I don’t give up chocolate.  That would be easy.  I don’t give up wine.  Hmmm, not so easy, but do-able.  Red meat?  Again, easy.  No, I give up murder mysteries, year after year, and it never gets any easier.

Let me be clear.  I’m not talking about that oxymoron, the mystery/thriller genre.  It is a mystery, for goodness sake!  There is no violence, no terror; this is not a thriller; it is a cognitive exercise.  Yes, there is a dead body, but we are not privy to the violence.  The only reason a mystery writer starts with a murder is because, according to renown author P.D. James, it is the only subject matter compelling enough to get people to read the book!

P.D. James also explained that the true story in the mystery is in the characterization of the three main players:  The victim, the murderer, and the detective.  The unspoken fourth entity is the reader.  The reader of a mystery is not a passive recipient of entertainment.  The mystery reader is pulled into the detection,  paying attention to the clues and cues, the motives and alibis, studying the character of the victim, the murderer, and the detective who in the midst of the psychological and physiological chaos that precedes and follows the act of murder, he imposes order and resolution.  And, finally every good mystery has the power to change at some level the life of the three main players.  The victim whose life ends, the murderer whose life as they knew it ends with the violence they committed; and the detective along with the readers of the mystery, – you and I – who experience a shift in our understanding of people, good and evil, life and death, hope and despair.

It sounds very much like the mystery we acknowledge and celebrate on this festival day of the Trinity.  Today is Trinity Sunday, a day devoted to a character study of the complex identity of God, i.e. the mysterious Trinity:  One God, Three Persons.  To solve this difficult mystery, we may need to borrow Sherlock’s magnifying glass as we do a little investigating of our own.  I suggest we start with the Nicene Creed as our primary resource for information.

As in my beloved murder mysteries, the Trinity Mystery has three main characters.  They are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  And one unspoken entity, we the readers, the followers, the believers.

The first statement in the Nicene Creed is our introduction to the Trinity: “We believe in one God.”  Not three.  Not twenty-three.  One.  The belief in one god is the foundation of Christian belief. 

And then we are introduced to the three persons or three personas, or three aspects of God, identified by their roles in our lives.

First character: “We believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”  God the Father, the master builder created order and beauty out of chaos, transforming a formless void of darkness into day and night, land and water.  We understand that God is above gender, neither male nor female.  Yet, on this Sunday, Father’s Day, I’d like to put that aside for a moment.  I would rather focus on the template God created for himself and for all fathers.  From Genesis and the Nicene Creed, I put together a list of job descriptors for fathers. These qualifications come straight from God himself.  So this list is for you who are fathers, who hope someday to be fathers, who are uncles, big brothers, teachers, coaches, mentors; and those of you who are father figures in the home, on the field, on the fishing dock, and in the hospital.  Here is your job description, or more correctly, here are God’s expectations of you across the board.  Keep in mind, God led by example; he expects of you only those things that he did.   If you are keeping score, we won’t ask how you did.

God’s Expectations of Earthly Fathers (Job Description for fathers)

  1. Love your Family
  2. Protect your family
  3. Provide your family with a good home, solid, well-built, well-maintained where your family can live safely, securely, and peacefully
  4. Provide your family with what they need for a good life.
  5. Support your family psychologically, with attention, encouragement, guidance, affection, and discipline
  6. Raise your children into adults of character and do that while leading by example, with respect and kindness
  7. Be a role model, a person of character, i.e. be responsible, moral, hard-working, respected and respectful; provide spiritual leadership in your own home.

 Happy Father’s Day, gentlemen!

Second Character:  God the Son.  When humans disobeyed God, they created distance between themselves and God.  In the Father’s love for his creation, he promised to send a leader, a teacher, a savior, the Messiah to bring them back into full relationship.  This Messiah we believe was and is Jesus.  God chose a stellar way of bridging the gap between himself and humans.  He sent Jesus as fully human. A true human being in body.  And then God the Father did something extraordinary.  He moved into Jesus with his own spirit and for the first time ever, God was able to live the Human Experience.  He came to know hunger, thirst, cold, sweat, pain, and sadness.  Jesus bridged the gap. He was the Messiah and the Father was in him. He explained it over and over to his followers, hoping they would grasp the mystery: The father and I are one.   The Father is in me and I am in him.  It wasn’t until he returned to his home in the Father, that they began to understand.

And Jesus, where were you at the time of the crime?   John tells us exactly where Jesus was. “In the beginning was the Word (Jesus) and the Word was God ..  all things were made through him and without him was not anything made that was made.”  As the one God, Jesus was there before creation, always there.  He and Father are one and together they created all that was created.

Third character:  We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.     In my opinion, the Holy Spirit is the most mysterious character in this three-part study of God.  At least with God the Father and God the Son, multiple artistic renderings give us visual images of them:  the father reaching down from a cloud in the sky to give life to Adam, Jesus holding a lamb in his arms, or sitting among the children gathered at his feet, or hanging on a cross.  The Holy Ghost?  Not so clear. First our character has more than one name:  Holy Ghost.  Holy Spirit.  Wisdom. Truth. Understanding.  Sometimes male, other times female, never seen, only felt, therefore less important? Let me be so bold as to correct that last thought. 

There would be no Bible were it not for the Holy Ghost, “Holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”  There would be no church were it not for the Holy Spirit.  In the Gospel for today, Jesus assured his disciples that the Spirit of Truth would come to them, Truth being the strongest material on earth with which to build a foundation.  When the disciples gathered in the upper room and the Spirit descended upon them with a mighty wind and tongues of fire, he gave them the power to speak the Truth in a way that all who heard them would understand and believe.  He gave them what they needed to jump start the building of the church with a foundation strong enough to hold it for all time.

Holy Spirit, where were you at the time of the crime?  The Spirit of God is god.  Like the Father and the Son, the Spirit was present from before the beginning of creation.  Look at our Proverb for today.  Wisdom speaks, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, . . .  when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”

As Jesus ascended to his Father, the Holy Spirit was descending into our hearts.  Jesus gifted us his Spirit, the aspect of the Trinity who delights in the Human Race, who delights in us!  She is deliriously happy to be in our heart!  She is dancing with delight just to be near us!  The joy that only Wisdom brings was Jesus’ gift because he, too loves us!   

          The Mysterious Trinity:  God the Father the master builder who willed the world into being; God the Son who mediated on our behalf to heal our relationship with the Father; who did whatever it took to make that happen; and God the Holy Spirit, the Lord who gave us life, the force who brought it all into being.  A force that continues to change the course of people’s lives even today.  I am sure that every person in here has a story how the presence of the Trinity has made a change in their life.  And I imagine every story follows the outline that Paul gave us in his letter to the Romans.              

Suffering is where it starts.  I’ve heard it said that we learn little from success; and much from our failures, weaknesses, illnesses, and mistakes.  Probably true.  A personal trainer I know once said, “This kind of workout is better to have done than to do.“  Think about it.  The things in life you count as achievements were difficult and demanding, never easily done and certainly not done perfectly.  We don’t seem to value things that come easily. That’s just the way it is with us humans.   

Endurance is the byproduct of suffering.  When we persist, when we take on the tasks that are difficult, when we endure adversity, we build stamina and strength, or as in Paul’s words, endurance.   

Character is a summary statement of who we are, how we cope with suffering, and how we live our lives in a world where suffering is all around us. To be a person of character is to be a person of moral strength and firmness.  A man once said of his mother, “On her tombstone was written, ‘She had no secrets.  She had nothing to hide.’” His mother was a woman of character.

Hope is God’s gift to us for having endured suffering and walked away from it a better person, a person of character.  When that happens, hope travels the path of faith, to peace, to grace, into our hearts.  Hope is the only element in our lives that will never disappoint.  Like the Trinity, it is the ever present, ever powerful wisdom that brings us to an understanding of God’s presence.  Hope is the reassurance that no matter what we encounter, in the end, all will be well.

It is this shift in our lives that we as the readers of the Trinity Mystery experience, that is the shift from hopelessness to hope.  So, do not be intimidated by the mystery; do not reject it in favor of the rational.  Embrace it.  Hold it close to your heart!  Feel the warmth of its light, and the grace showered on us.  Live the Mystery.  Dance with it to the songs and melodies of faith and peace.  And live it gloriously.  You will never regret it. 

And one more thing, this is one mystery you will never have to give up for Lent.  I guarantee it!

Amen

Come on-a my House

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 16:9-15

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

 Come on-a My House

Lydia

Lydia is mentioned only twice in the Bible, both times in the 16th chapter of the book of Acts. Yet, she has grabbed the attention of generations.  She is venerated as a saint with her own feast days.  The Eastern Orthodox Church calls her “Equal to the Apostles.”   In Philippi an outdoor baptistry was built on the site where she was baptized by Paul.  The Catholic Church has deemed her the patron saint of dyers.  She is recognized as the first European to be converted.  Modern authors continue to be intrigued with her, writing autobiographical religious fiction of her life as they would imagine it. 

The baptistry in Philippi in honor of Lydia

For me personally, I’ve been fascinated with her since childhood.  Perhaps it was her beauty and success and the deep purple veil and shawl she wore; or that she lived the life considered to be the Way:  Worship the Lord. Work hard. Take care of your family.  Give back by giving to those in need.

Of course, I was only ten back then, so it was probably her clothes and jewelry.  I do like those things. 

I can see however how others have been equally taken with Lydia.  You don’t hear frequently about women in Biblical times being well-to-do entrepreneurs and here we have one.  She was a seller of purple, a cloth dyed with expensive Tyrian purple dye derived from shellfish.  It was a dye reserved for the robes of rulers.  The higher Roman officials in Philippi may well have been her customers.  She wasn’t selling gingham, folks.  And she wasn’t selling fabric out of Wal-Mart.  Her customers were among the wealthiest and most powerful, willing to pay top dollar for her product. With it, she supported a household that likely included servants and slaves, all dependent on her.   She was the head of the household.  When she converted, they did as well and were baptized with her.

Now that we’ve met Lydia, let’s return to today’s scripture.  Paul, Timothy, and Silas had embarked on their Second Missionary trip.  It is thought they were later joined by Luke, author of Acts, considering the first-person singular that falls into use at this point.  Paul had a vision in which he is told that they were needed in Macedonia in northern Greece.  They changed course and made their way to Philippi, a Roman colony in Macedonia. Once there, they found lodging and stayed awhile.  When it was Sabbath they walked to a place where they heard that people gathered for prayer.  There they met Lydia. She was a Gentile who worshiped the God of Israel but was never formally converted.   Paul spoke to her. God was with her; she listened and believed. 

Here is where Lydia speaks to us today.

She didn’t just say, “I believe,” and went back home to do laundry.  She took action!  And in a heartbeat, she and her household are baptized.  Then comes the punchline, “’If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.”

Think about it.  Here she is in the presence of the great Paul, accompanied by Silas, Timothy, and Luke, all learned miracle masters, powerful, saints and martyrs in the making, and she challenges them.  She challenges them even to consider not accepting an invitation to her house.  

 Implied in this challenge come the questions.  If you think I’m faithful enough to baptize, why would you not accept my hospitality?  Am I not faithful enough? Or am I unacceptable because I’m not a Jew?  Or because I am a single woman?   Anticipating any one of those arguments, she does not slip away quietly.  She does not back off.  She does not plead.  She does not whimper.  She does not cry.  She does not beg.  She does not offer a weak, “Well, if not, maybe drop by sometime?”  No. “She prevailed upon us.”

To my way of thinking, that one sentence tells us more about Lydia than any commentary or Biblical fiction author ever could.  Intriguing how a single word can be so revealing.  Prevail.  To prove more powerful than opposing forces. To be victorious.  To prove to be superior in strength, power or influence.  To predominate.  To persuade successfully.  That was Lydia.

She was an independent successful woman of means.  She did not get that way by not getting her way!  She was not to be deterred when she insisted that the men were to come to her home.  She was more powerful than any doubts or prejudices they may have. She knew they were angels of the Lord and she would be the one in charge of their care and keeping.  Come on a-my house!  Come on, come on!  She understood the ritual importance of hospitality, and whatever dis-inclinations Paul and his friends might have had, they would not prevail.  She would prevail.  And she did.  They stayed with her.  And later, when Paul and Silas were released from jail where they were beaten and chained, they returned to her home to find it the gathering place for the followers of Jesus.  And again, they stayed with her and she gave them a place to rest while their wounds healed; she gave them food and drink and safety.

To my way of thinking, she shows us how to do it.  No more weak, half-hearted invitations to a new neighbor like “We should get together sometime?”  Rather, “Come on-a my house!  I just bought a bunch of ribs. I’ll cook them up for you.  You have to come.”  Prevail upon them. 

Or prevail upon yourself.  Let’s say that God has extended to you an invitation to his house, promising music, prayers, acceptance, coffee and doughnuts, even something good to think about.  Rather than saying, “I should go back to church sometime, maybe one of these Sundays?” try this. “Hey Lydia!  I want to go to church with you this Sunday.  Can you pick me up?”

Have you ever considered extending an invitation to God to visit your house? Is it a weak, “Drop by sometime God, when you’re in the neighborhood?  I’ll try to be here.”   Or do you start your morning, thanking him for a new day  and insisting that he strengthen you for whatever temptation or adversity you encounter?   Do you stand up to God and insist that he pick you up when you are weak, insist that he strengthen you when you struggle?  At the end of your day, do you pray with determination, “Visit this place, Oh Lord and drive far from it all snares of the enemy!” Do you fall asleep with a song in your heart, “Come on-a my house!  Come on, come on.”

Lydia did not back off in her demands on the men of God.  I’m sure she didn’t back off on God any less as she spearheaded the growth of the new church in Philippi.  She set the bar for us in communicating with a God who will listen, a God who loves us, a God who never leaves us even in sickness and death.  Trust her.  Sing out, “Come on-a my house, come on, come on and I will give you figs and dates and grapes and cakes.  And I’m gonna give you marriage and ring and Easter-egg too.  Just come on-a my house.  Just come on!”

 Your song will prevail.  You will prevail, and God will come to your house.  He will come and eagerly listen to your words and accept your gifts.  And he will give you apple and plum and apricot and Christmas tree too.  He will give you life and a reason to live it.

Amen

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/e/e8/BaptistryAtPhilippi.JPG/240px-BaptistryAtPhilippi.JPG

The Dusty Road to Damascus

We pray:  This is another day, oh Lord.  I don’t know what it will bring but make me ready for whatever it may be.  If I am to stand up, help me do it bravely.  If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.  If I am to lie low, help me do it patiently.   And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.  Make these words more than words and give me the Spirit of Jesus.  Amen

(This prayer is adapted from The Book of Common Prayer, Ministration to the Sick)

Acts 9:1-6

Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

The Dusty Road to Damascus

The first thing that occurred to me when reading the scripture assigned to the third Sunday of Easter was, “What happened to the rest of the story?”  You know it.  After the conversation between Saul and Jesus, Saul was able to stand up, but was blind.  His friends took him to the home of Judas in Damascus.  After three days, not eating or drinking and still blind, he was visited by Ananias.  Now Ananias was not thrilled to drop in on Saul.  Saul’s reputation preceded him.  But in a vision, Ananias was told to go anyway.  He did, and once there, laid hands on Saul, prayed over him and Saul’s sight was restored.  He was filled with the Holy Spirit, baptized, and took off to the Synagogue to proclaim Jesus as the son of God.

It’s a great conversion story, so why stop before getting to the good part? 

Rather than stew over it, I read the truncated version again, this time out loud.  Then like Saul, the scales fell from my eyes.  It was so clear. The first six verses were all that was needed to drive home a point that anyone in the second half of life would understand.  If you’ve lived long enough, you’ve had that moment, perhaps on your way to work, or to the grocery store, or to wherever was your destination, your Damascus.  In that moment, something happened that changed everything, and forever altered your life.  Just like that moment in Saul’s life.

Here we see him, most assuredly the captain of his ship, a man in control, a man of action, a take charge kind of guy.    He was a Pharisee, at the top of his game.  He had a deep commitment to his church and to protecting it at all costs.  When he saw a threat, he took action.  He had Stephen, a follower of Jesus arrested and stoned to death.  When he heard that Damascus was a hotbed of religious fervor and a gathering place of men and women of the Way, he set out to take control of the situation.  He had his paperwork in order and was authorized to arrest anyone spreading and perpetuating rumors that Jesus was raised from the dead and was the resurrected Lord.  When he finds these people, he will bind them, and march them to Jerusalem where they will be incarcerated.  He is in charge.

Until . . .

He is struck down, helpless, blind, lying in the dusty road to Damascus.

And then, he hears the voice, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Let me step in here.  I must admit that this question makes me cringe.  I wouldn’t have wanted to be Saul at that moment, and I certainly would not want to be on the receiving end of questions Jesus might have for me, lying flat on my back in the middle of the road.  “Why do you spend so little time in prayer and meditation in your day?  Why do you put me at the bottom of your list of priorities when it comes to important decisions in your life?  Why do you let your mind wander during worship?”  It is an interesting if unsettling exploration, putting oneself into these situations.  You might try it.  Take a moment to consider what questions Jesus would have for you.  Now, try it.  Hmmm . . . . See what I mean?  Makes you cringe, too?  

 Oh well, back to our scripture.

To Paul, Jesus asked, “Why do you persecute me?”

We know that a Why question is not a true question.  It is typically asked to make a statement,  to express criticism, or disapproval; therefore no answer will be adequate.  It is no surprise then that Saul does not attempt to answer.  That would have been foolish and Paul was not a foolish man.  Instead, he asked a foolish question, to which he already knew the answer, “Who are you, Lord?”

Jesus identified himself to eliminate any doubt as to his living presence.  He was not dead; he was alive; and he gives the orders.  Which is what he does next. The tables have turned and Saul is no longer in charge.  Now, he will be told what to do.

I imagine most of us are familiar with this turning of tables.  As I said earlier, it has probably happened to every one of us.  Here we are, walking our own dusty road to Damascus, thinking we are in control of our destiny, the captain of our ship, when suddenly, our world is turned upside down.  The rug is pulled out from under us.  Our life is profoundly altered and forever changed.  It may come with a phone call in the middle of the night.  An accident.  A deadly diagnosis. The violent or unexpected death of a friend, a child, a sibling, a parent, a spouse.  A sudden loss of function like Saul’s blindness.  The loss of health, or mobility or fertility.  Maybe a devastating financial downturn and its resulting loss of means, security, and safety.  A devastating fire, flood, hurricane, tornado.  Or the words seemingly out of nowhere, saying, “I don’t love you anymore.” 

Prior to that moment, we may have thought, as did Saul that we were in control, but in Damascus others will tell us what to do.  For Paul, it was Ananias. Our Damascus may be Hospice, a hospital, rehab, a shelter, or a court, where suddenly someone else is in charge, and we are being told what to do.

Because we are a society that believes we should be in control at all times, we will either blame others for our adversity; or we will search for a way that makes ourselves responsible. Paradoxically, we understand that if we caused the problem then we can fix it.   We will assume guilt gladly if it means that it allows us the control to make the problem vanish. There may be folks ready to agree with you.  Check out Job!  He was surrounded by friends and family who urged him to confess sins that caused God to pour down punishment on him

 Even more discouraging words come from those who tell you that you can change the outcome of your problems if your faith is strong enough.  The implication is loud and clear that it is your fault you are dying.  Add insult to injury, there are others who insist we can control the course of life simply by focusing on a goal to make it a reality.  Really? Focus, and your child will magically recover from leukemia?  Focus, and your son killed in Afghanistan will return unharmed?  Focus, and your home that burned to the ground with all your possessions will be restored? Focus, and a million dollars will show up in your checking account?” I don’t think so.  

Don’t misunderstand, the ability to focus on the content of a goal is necessary to make some goals a possibility.  Only, some goals.  For example, you need to focus to finish studies and graduate with a diploma.  You need to focus to run daily to prepare for a 10K. There is a place for those concepts in life, – understanding that they still do not guarantee outcomes.  They are a way of planning and preparing and hoping for the best.  That is what we do because we are not in control of our trip to Damascus. We can pack wisely.  We can eat healthy and exercise daily.  We can attend church every time the doors open.  We can strive to be good parents, good employees, good bosses, good neighbors, good children, good citizens and that is all good.  It doesn’t take away the reality that in a heartbeat, there may come a flash of light that changes everything.

At that moment, we like Saul find ourselves flat on our back on the dusty road to Damascus, blind as to what happened and helpless to see what will happen next.   All we can do is speak and we hear ourselves ask, “Lord, who are you?”   It is Jesus, he reassures us and speaks gently, “I know that accidents happen.  That circumstances beyond your control interrupt lives every day.  I know that it is God’s will that his children would never suffer, but that is not the way of the world in which you live.  It is why I offer you strength that you like Saul, can get back up on your feet and somehow move again, and with time come to see what you need to do to go on. I offer you wisdom and perseverance to discern anew your purpose in life, and the courage to love once again.  I offer you my Spirit.”  

This is how Jesus operates and this is what we need, because “Oh Lord, it is a new day, and we don’t know what it will bring.”  Amen

Touch Heals

A word of explanation.  Yes, I’m posting a Lenten (pre-Easter) meditation long after Easter has come and gone.  However, some of us never want the party to end, so we celebrate not just Easter day, but Easter Season, all seven weeks of it!  So, despite what it might appear, I’m not really late getting these Lenten and Easter meditations posted.   I’m still celebrating!                                                                He is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!
The 4th Sunday of Lent

John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.

(John tells us:  Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, to the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha.)

Matthew 26: 6-13

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.

When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked.  “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”

Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.  When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.

Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

Luke 7:36-50

When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.

 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume.  As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

44 Then Jesus turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?

I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 

Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven, as her great love has shown.”

Touch heals

One might think with the number of stories in the Bible involving this ritual of water and washing and oil and anointing and touching that it was commonplace back then. And if you thought that you’d be right. Indeed, it was practiced at every level of society and event from the loftiest to the everyday ordinary. It was the anointing ritual that transformed a young shepherd boy in the field into the powerful King David. It was the same ritual that transformed a grieving young prince into the wealthy, wise and most honorable King Solomon, son of David and Bathsheba. It was the treatment of choice to move illness back into health.  It was the service of Last Rites to prepare a person for death, and the ancient ritual of preparing the body of the dead for burial and life in the hereafter.

And then there was the everyday ordinary. This ritual was central to the code of good manners for a host. Think about it.  Back then you didn’t know if those strangers walking down the road towards your tent might not be angels. So you better do something that would transform them from strangers into honored guests, right?  You provided oil for their their dry cracked feet and dusty, windblown hair.  You put out basins of water with a few drops of perfumed oil to wash their feet.  Just a few drops to freshen the air; one never wanted to be wasteful. The Torah was clear about that; just as it was clear what was the expected of the good host.

In our three stories today, we have a host, a guest, and the ritual. Three stories, three women, three different locations and times, and one opening scene. Jesus has been invited to dinner.

In the first two that take place the week before Passover and Jesus’ arrest, Jesus is in the homes of good friends: Lazarus, Mary and Martha; and Simon the Leper, forever identified by his disease that Jesus healed.  These were homes of friends and undoubtedly good hosts.  Even before our heroines enter the room with their alabaster jars of expensive perfumed oil, I’m confident that our guests have already washed their feet in basins of water.  Up to this point, everything appears kosher. It was when Mary and the unnamed woman at Simon’s house made the scene that the plot thickens.  Both women ignore the Torah’s admonishment to avoid extravagance.  Mary opens her jar holding an entire pound of nard, pure essential oil, estimated at the cost of a full years pay and pours all of it on to the feet of Jesus!  Then she rubs it into his feet and toenails and ankles.  The woman at Simon’s home pours a lavish helping of extravagant oil onto the head of Jesus and rubs it into his hair until it glistens in the candlelight of the darkening room.

It was for that over-the-top extravagance that both women were criticized soundly by the men in the house. And for good reason.  It did violate the Torah. Funny how Jesus paid no attention to that.  The first thing he told the men was, “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? ” He stopped the criticism on the spot and then addressed the true nature of what the women had done.

This was not a light-hearted welcome ceremony.  It was a transformational blessing on many levels. It was the ritual preparation for his death and burial.  It marked the end of his ministry on earth and his transition into rulership from a heavenly throne.  It sadly and profoundly marked the end of his physical presence among them.  Never again would they feel the warmth of his embrace.  Their relationship would be with a purely spiritual being.  I am also convinced that as a ritual of healing, Jesus was comforted in his own anxiety knowing what was to come.

And then we have a story from Luke.  This dinner party took place in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has been baptized, he’s enlisted his disciples, headed out to the countryside.  Before long, he is the newest superstar on the horizon.  Wherever he goes, there is a crowd of followers clamoring to hear what he has to say.  And standing on the edge of the crowds are the pharisees. They have come to watch and see.

One of them invites Jesus to his home to get a closer look. Jesus arrives and is seated.  Quietly, a woman with a rather sketchy reputation downtown, slips into the room. She stands behind him and begins to cry.

I’ve wondered over the years of reading this story, what triggered her tears.  Was it that the mere presence of Jesus was simply overwhelming?  Or if she could feel the chasm between her life and the darkness it had become in sharp contrast to the light and holiness of this man.  Maybe they were tears of remorse and shame, alienation and estrangement from her family and community.  Maybe it was helplessness rooted in a never ending despair.   What it was, in that moment, she realized she was not helpless!  She knew what she could do.  Remorse, guilt, and grief had given her the tears to wash the feet of this holy man.  She fell to her knees in front of him.  Filled her hands with her own tears and washed his feet, drying them with her hair, and kissing them and pouring perfume on them.

And then there was silence.

We know Jesus can read our thoughts, and he read the thoughts of the pharisee, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

In the ensuing heavy silence, Jesus turns and looks at the woman at his feet. When he speaks to the Pharisee, he doesn’t look at him.   Looking at the woman, he asks, “Do you see this woman?”

Now, that’s an interesting question. Do you see this woman? We all have our little private prejudices, don’t we? Those things that keep us from really seeing somebody. Maybe your prejudice is driven by status or the lack of it, by wealth or the lack of it, or the kind of job a person has or the lack of it.  Maybe yours is driven by lifestyle or attire, gender or race. I don’t know what yours is, but I do know this.  Prejudice forms a cloud over our eyes and it prevents us from seeing God’s holy creation standing right in front of us.  Instead, we see an object that we use to identify an entire group of people.  If a member of that group stands before us and we have labeled them, we have stripped them of their humanity.   Once a person is dehumanized, it justifies anything that we want to say or do or think about that person, without ever truly seeing them.

Jesus asks, “Do you see this woman?” And then he turns to the Pharisee and says “I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she cleaned my feet with her tears. You didn’t give me a kiss, but she hasn’t stopped kissing me since the moment I walked in here. You didn’t give me any oil for my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.”
Jesus made it clear to the Pharisee that it had not escaped his attention, that the Pharisee had done nothing to welcome him into the home.  He made no attempt to transform this visitor into a valued guest or friend.  Jesus knew exactly what was going on. He was not there to be a guest. He was there to be observed and evaluated for his usefulness or his danger to the established church.  After his blistering critique, Jesus delivered the coup d’etat “Therefore, I tell you, this woman’s many sins have been forgiven as her great love has shown.”   Unspoken, we hear the implication, “And yours have not.”

Through this ritual, the woman was transformed from a sinner to the forgiven, from the shunned to the loved.  Jesus gave us a clear statement of the relationship between love and forgiveness. Where there is love, we are capable of forgiving, and where there is forgiveness, love will thrive.

Now, these stories of transformation in the Bible don’t stop there.  With every baptism, babies, children, adults of all ages are transformed with the washing of water, the laying on of hands, the anointing with oil on the head, and the words, “You are anointed by the Holy Spirit and sealed as Christ’s own forever.” That’s transformation.

In many churches even today, we have healing services where people gather to pray for their own healing and the healing of loved ones.   In this quiet, prayerful service, the priest puts his hands on your shoulder, and says,” I lay my hands upon you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that you may know the healing power of His Love.”

The laying on of hands transforms children into Christ’s own forever, confirmands into full members of the church, seminarians into priests, empty buildings into churches, and people like you and me into agents of transformation.  Isn’t that what we have all been called to become?  Here’s how we do it.  Start with the current accepted and practiced ritual of hospitality and transformation.  Introduce yourself and shake hands.

When you do, be aware of the powerful ritual of touch.  When you take that person’s hand, look at him.  Look at her.  Don’t look away.  Stay locked for a moment to make sure you see the person.  I don’t want you waking up in the middle of night hearing Jesus ask you, “Did you see that woman?  Did you see that man?”  Don’t let anything block your vision of God’s creation standing right in front of you.  Then speak words of welcome, whatever ones come to mind.  You can do it.  It’s that simple.

With this ritual of simple kindness and hospitality, with or without a basin of water and a little perfumed oil, we can transform strangers into friends, and friends into family and family into community, a Christ community where love and forgiveness, healing and acceptance live.  It may sound a bit daunting.  However, if those three women could do it back then, we can do it now!   And who knows? Maybe like the guests in the house of Simon the Leper, we too may hear Jesus say these words about us,  “Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what they have done will also be told, in memory of them.”  Now wouldn’t that be something!!  Amen

The Pursuit of Happiness


THURSDAY AFTER ASH WEDNESDAY
Psalm 1
Psalm 1: 1-6
Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the
wicked nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats
of the scornful! Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and
they meditate on his law day and night.

 
They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in
due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do
shall prosper.  


It is not so with the wicked; they are like chaff which the wind
blows away. Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when
judgment comes, nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.

     
The Pursuit of Happiness  

As a rule, we are a generally unhappy lot, are we not? 
If you don’t think so read on.

Today, the self-help industry promises untold numbers of
quick, cheap easy paths to happiness, while it nets around
$10 billion dollars a year.  And that is in the United States
alone! 

Add to that, most people buying a self-help book will buy
another one within eighteen months, followed by workbooks,
classes, and videos.  And another self-help book!

We may be tempted to see this desperate search as the collateral
damage of a loss of purpose or meaning in life, caused by materialism,
 toxic political unrest, environmental toxins, global warming, or
whatever.

Lest we do so, we must remember that brilliant thinkers including
 our Psalmist have been addressing this very topic throughout the
ages. Generously, they have provided us a wealth of happiness
theories, all having in common four basic tenets.

The first tenet in the search for happiness is to Know Yourself,
which is exactly where David starts in the first verse of the first
chapter of his extraordinary collection of wisdom, “Happy are
they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked nor
lingered in the way of sinners nor sat in the seats of the scornful!”

Take your pick!  Which are you? One of the wicked? Or are you
one of those who take delight in the law of the Lord?  David makes
it clear that we are what we do and with whom we do it.  If we
linger in the halls with sinners, take advice from the wicked, and
place ourselves scornfully above others, we become what we do. 
We become one of those who are ultimately crushed by guilt,
unable to stand before God when the judgement comes; who are
as meaningless as chaff blowing in the wind.

So why would anyone consider wickedness as their path to
happiness? Because at first glance, the ways of the wicked
are seductive! They promise a short cut to happiness
with quick access to the desires of the heart.  Unfortunately,
not all desires of the heart are good.  Some are evil and
ultimately destructive!

Which brings us to the second tenet, Manage your Desires.  
We are encouraged in Ecclesiastes to pursue happiness, even
given directives! Here they are: Seize Life!    Eat Bread with
gusto! Drink wine with a robust heart! Relish life with the
spouse you love!  

The often-blunt writer of this controversial book explained,
“Each and every day of your precarious life is God’s gift.  It’s
all you get in exchange for the hard work of staying alive.
For there’s neither work to do nor thoughts to think in the
company of the dead where you’re most certainly headed.” 

He wanted the people of God to know that God takes pleasure
in the pleasures they enjoy from their hard work, not from
extortion. God also takes pleasure in the good sense his
people exercise when it comes to desires.  When desires are
evaluated far away from the dark halls of the wicked, and in the
light of moderation, they become our joys, not our addictions. 
Manage your joys well and you are on your way to happiness.

Tenet three: Take What is Yours.   Whatever is yours, own it.  
Take care of it, whether profession, home, relationships,
spouse, or children. Treat each precious possession responsibly,
always conscientious, faithful, and consistent.  When you do,
David promises you will be like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither. 
Everything you do shall prosper and you will have a good shot
at happiness on earth.

And finally, tenet four:  Remember in the end, you will die.  
When we keep that in mind, we keep the world in perspective. 
We don’t let possessions become obsessions; we don’t put
objects above relationships.  Rather, we make the law of
the Lord our delight.  With that, we are assured that when
we face judgment, we will stand before our Maker upright, in
confidence and great happiness.

It may appear that the pursuit of happiness is an odd topic to
ponder during the time of Lent.  Is this not a somber,
contemplative time as we walk the road to Golgotha with
Jesus?  Yes, it is.  So why pick Psalm One as a Lenten
scripture?  Perhaps, because its four-step path to happiness
is strikingly similar to how we do Lent.    

A sound Lenten discipline calls us to remember who we are!
Followers of Jesus, who gather in prayer and meditation to
focus on the word of God, who manage our desires in a way
that is unique to Lent, who take our journey seriously, and who
remember on Good Friday that we too will die in the end:  We are but dust and to dust we shall return.

Only of course, that is not where our story ends. For us as
followers of Jesus, we get Easter!  That day when we burst into
a resurrection of Happiness, when we join with a multitude of
believers, standing upright before God and singing joyfully,

“Jesus Christ is risen today!  Alleluia!  Alleluia! Amen and Amen!