Sermon: Pushing the Boat Out

Mark 4:35-41

Growing up, my family lives a few streets over from the water. I can remember waking up on summer mornings and smelling the fresh salt air. We were not close enough to hear the waves crashing, but we could smell that ocean, and it is some of my fondest childhood memories.

But the sea can also be deadly. We were always conscious of when storms would be on the horizon. We lived far enough away and high enough from the water that flooding was not a real issue but, this is New England after all, and one never knows.

My father owned a couple of sailboats when I was growing up, and he taught my brothers and me how to sail. Learning to sail was more than just knowing what rope to pull and when it was also about safety on the water. Whenever we went out on the boat, we always had our life jackets on and always made sure the other safety equipment was present and working.

The passage from the Gospel of St. Mark that we just heard is a boat story. The people that Jesus chose to work with him were sea people; they were fisherman for the most part. Sure, there were a few exceptions, but they all knew something about fishing. They were “crossing over,” and the sea turned violent.

A “furious squall” came up, and the waves were crashing over the sides. I love this next part, “Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.” The whole world is crashing in around them, and Jesus is sleeping on a cushion!

They woke him and sort of yelled at him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He rebuked the wind was calm. Except, Jesus had some words for those who woke him.

“Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

Now we come to the matter at hand. How many times have we been the disciples in the boat? How many times has our world been crashing all around us, and rather than turning to God, we turn to ourselves?

Before we get too deep, God is not a magician, and this story is not about the calming of the waters; this story is about faith or the lack of faith when we face difficult situations in life. God has never promised us that life would be easy; what God did promise us is that God would never leave us during the storm.

For most of my ministry, I have been involved in disaster relief work. I am one of the guys that head in when others are heading out. Sitting with people recovering from a disaster of any size is blessed work, and I am privileged that I get to do it. People ask all sorts of questions at times like this, but the most common question is, “where was God? Why didn’t God protect me?”

I usually point out that they are alive, and although their stuff might be gone or damaged, they have their life. As important as our stuff is, and I have some stuff that I would miss for sure, my life and the lives of my family are far more important.

It took me a long time to come up with an answer, and sometimes, folks don’t want to hear the answer. But the response I have come up with is, God was and is right here with you. God will never leave our side, no matter what. Again, folks don’t always want to hear this as an answer, but it is the only one I have.

There is an old story of a man who dies and goes to heaven. He greets God and tells God that he has a question for him. You see, the man died as the result of a storm. The storm was coming, and the man was watching TV. The weatherman said that the storm was coming, and they should seek higher ground. The man thought God will protect me, so he stayed. The rains came, and the water rose, and the man thought, God, will protect me. Another man in a boat came by and shouted to the man that he would take him to safety, and the man yells back, God will protect me. The water continued to rise, and the man found himself on his roof. A helicopter appeared, and they threw down a rope. But the man pushed it aside and said, God, will protect me.

Well, the man died, and standing before God, he asked, why didn’t you protect me. God said I sent you a weather report, a boat, and a helicopter; what more do you want?

We all have or have had storms in our lives. We have all been in a position of the waves crashing over us and not knowing what we will do. Sometimes the solution is obvious, and sometimes, not so much. Sometimes it’s a kind word from someone, and sometimes it’s a rope from a helicopter, but, at those times, we have to be looking for it.

June is the start of the Atlantic Hurricane Season. If we live near the water, we need to prepare just in case. Preparation for a disaster is essential, but many of us just fluff it off. We have been through this before, and we don’t need to prepare.

Preparing for the storms in our lives is just as, if not more important. How are you preparing? How is your prayer life? Do we spend time each day reading Scripture and meditating on it? All these things help us get ready for when the time comes. Preparation needs to take place before the storm, not during the storm.

At the start of this, I mentioned that this passage was not about the storm or the fact that Jesus claimed it. Many times, in these stories, we miss the meaning because of the magic. This story is about faith, faith in good times, and faith in bad times. How is our faith? Does it need a tune-up?

When we are going through something as individuals or as a community, we need to turn to God. We need to get on our knees and pray, really pray, and seek the wisdom to understand and accept what comes along. We need to discern if this is my will or God’s will. Spend time reading God’s word, seeking guidance from those around us, and finally getting a spiritual guide. We do not have to go it alone.

Jesus calmed the winds, and all was well. Jesus will calm the winds in your life if you ask and have faith that it will happen.

Amen

Scripture Meditation: 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

Room at the Table
Luke 14:16-24

Have you ever planned a party, and no one came?  You have made all of the preparations, cooked all of the food. Set the table with the finest china and silver, and at the appointed time, no one came? Just think for a moment about how you would feel.

On the surface, today’s lesson from the Gospel of Luke is a story about “a certain man” who planned a lavish banquet, but no one came. At the time of the party, he sent his servants out to remind everyone of the big day, but they all had an excuse. One had just completed a real estate transaction. One had just bought some oxen. And one, I think with the only legitimate reason, just got married. Although one would think he would have known that when he accepted the invitation in the first place.

At the time of the writing of this Gospel, to accept an invitation beforehand and then refuse it when the day came was a grave insult.

So, let’s unpack this story a little.

In this parable, the master is an image of God. Those who were initially invited to the party are the chosen ones of God who, throughout all of their history, waited and looked forward to the day when God would come. When he does finally arrive, they refuse the invitation.

The poor people from the lanes and streets represent the tax collectors and sinners who welcomed Jesus. Those gathered from the roads, and other places are an image of the Gentiles for whom there was still room at the feast of God.

Although this parable was written long ago and aimed at people who refused God’s invitation, some truths apply to us today. In the parable, the guests made excuses for not coming to the banquet, and sadly, those excuses are not much different from those we hear today.

The first man bought a field and was going out to check out his new purchase. He is allowing his business dealings to get in the way of God. As we have seen, perhaps in our own lives, we can be so immersed in our affairs that when the time for worship comes, we simply do not have the time.

The second man bought five yoke of oxen, and he needed to take them for a test drive. It is very easy for a new thing, a new hobby, a new car, or other possessions we might have to get in the way of our worship.

The third man said that he got married and could not come. Now I have to ask when he accepted the invitation did, he not know it was his wedding day? But I digress. There is a law in the Book of Deuteronomy that says when a man is newly married; he shall not go out with the Army or be charged with any business; he shall be free at home for one year, to be happy with the wife he has taken. (Deuteronomy 24:5).

Perhaps the man had this law in mind when he refused the invitation to the banquet; we may never know. But we cannot let the lovely things in life crowd out time for God.

I have called this sermon “Room at the Table” to indicate that there is room for all of us, even those of us that make excuses at God’s table. In a few moments, we will celebrate the Sacrament of the Eucharist, and at this table, all are welcome. All are welcome to come, and all are welcome to eat. Do not feel there is any reason that should keep you away.

We make time for what is essential in our lives. The point of the parable that we have heard today is that worship of God should be one of those essential things in our lives. Just as there were varied excuses in today’s story, there are various ways to worship God, and we must find what works best for us. Perhaps it’s attending a service like this, or maybe it is a walk in nature. Whatever it is, find it and make time for it.

Amen.

Trinity Sunday: Mysterious Encounter

On the Liturgical Calendar, this is the Sunday known as Trinity Sunday. It is the Sunday set aside for a commemoration or a remembrance of the Holy Trinity. We have completed Eastertide, and last Sunday was Pentecost, the fest of the descent of the Holy Spirit. All last week was Whitsunweek or Whitsuntide when the focus is on the power of the Holy Spirit. Now we turn to the Holy Trinity.

I chuckle a little because, for those of us who write and preach on religious and theological topics, this is the Sunday we fear the most, for this is the Sunday when one can sail dangerously close to the line of heresy!

I have studied theology from both the eastern and western Christian perspectives, and one of the significant differences between the two approaches is the sense of mystery. The wester, scholastic method has all but taken the mystery out of theology. The scholastic approach tens to look for answers where sometimes, there are no answers. I should not say there are no answers because there is always an answer, but it might just be so complex that we cannot understand it.

The western scholastic approach has done wonders for the study of theology. However, this approach has all but taken the mystery out of it all. There used to be a sense of awe and mystery to theology. Take the Roman Catholic and Anglican Liturgy, for example. Before the liturgical reforms of the 20th century, the priest-celebrant celebrated the Holy Mysteries facing in the same direction as the people. All the people prayed together and offered the bloodless sacrifice to God jointly. You knew something was going on up there on the altar, but we did not and could not witness it.

Roman Catholics used Latin as the language of the Liturgy. As far as we know, Jesus did not speak Latin, but Latin was the Imperial Language of Rome and was universal for some time. But the priest speaking Latin during the parts of the Liturgy that are the most spiritual added a sense of mystery to the whole thing. Please do not get me wrong; I am not advocating a return to Latin; I am simply putting my comments in perspective.

So, what about the Doctrine of the Trinity? After all, that is what this Sunday is all about.

Danger, theological content ahead!

“The Christian doctrine of the Trinity holds that God is one God, but three coeternal and consubstantial persons: the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. The three persons are distinct, yet are one “substance, essence or nature” (homoousios). In this context, a “nature” is what one is, whereas a “person” is who one is.”

If you are still with me, congratulations. Let’s see if we can break this apart a little.

The Doctrine of the Trinity was first promulgated, if you will, at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. Councils are those places where theological topics are discussed and doctrines are established. These councils lasted years and usually ended with someone being excommunicated. But these councils were also necessary for the fledgling church to come to grips with what is actually believed.

This is where the tricky bits come in. The Fathers of the Council declared that God was one in three persons that were distinct from each other but the same. In the above definition that I totally stole from Wikipedia, the Greek word homoousios was used. Homoousios is the term that describes the relationship of the three persons of the Trinity with each other; they are of the SAME substance, the SAME essence, the SAME nature.

The counter belief at the Council was that the three persons of the Trinity were not the same but was similar and the Greek word for that is homoiousios, meaning SIMILAR substance, SIMILAR essence, and SIMILAR nature.

I often say that when speaking and writing about topics of theology, a precise language is needed. Sure, there can be some ambiguity in some areas, but in others, a clear and concise language is necessary and Trinitarian theology is one of those areas. During the Council of Nicaea, the debate came down to one letter, the insertion of which made on a heretic. Look closely at the words homoousios and homoiousios; in the second word, the letter “I” is inserted between the two “o’s” the insertion of that one letter was the difference between being orthodoxy and being a heretic!

Although it is one letter, the difference is significant. One is saying that the three persons are equal in their essence, and the other is saying they are simply similar. Now, this may not seem like a big deal, but in essence, it is.

But for me, and if you are still reading this you, this is where the mystery comes in. I am okay with not understanding why and how the three are distinct yet the same. I do not need to know how their essence is shared or why; I just need to know it is. I am okay with mystery; mystery strengthens my faith; it does not take anything away from it.

There are those who will fight over that letter “I.” Wars have been fought over these things. People on both sides of the argument have been stoned, beaten, excommunicated, and in some cases burned for their belief and use of the terms similar and same. Doctrine is essential, right belief is important, but it is not worth killing over.

What is crucial for me is that the Trinity represents love and intimate connection between the three persons, Creator, Sanctifier, and Redeemer, and the love shown by these three for creation is what sustains me. Out of love, God created the world. Out of Love, Jesus came to show us a different way to be with each other. And out of love, the Holy Spirit comes to help us stay on that road.

The essence, the substance, the nature of the Holy Trinity is love! And that doctrine is to remind us that our essence, our substance, and our nature is love. Love of God and Love of Neighbor. When we strip it all away, the only doctrine that really matters is the doctrine of love.

Amen

Spirit for All

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Acts 2:1-21

Some 50 days ago, we gathered around our computer screens to celebrate the great festival of the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The day of the impossible. How can it be that someone who had died could be alive again?

On that first Easter, all of Jesus’ friends were gathered in the Upper Room. That room where only a few days earlier they celebrated together with food and fellowship. They were behind locked doors, as Scripture tells us, and he came and stood before them offering his peace. How can this be? They saw him die. They witnessed him being placed in the tomb. They watched as the massive stone was rolled, closing off the entrance. But here he is.

And here we are, fifty days later, still wondering about what we witnessed.

It is traditional to refer to the Feast of Pentecost as the birthday of the Church. I do not like to think of this feast in those terms because I feel it reduces this incredible outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit to a day; we wear pointy hats, sing songs, and eat cake. Not that there is anything wrong with cake, but this day, this great festival of the Church is much more than that.

Once again, Scripture tells us that they were gathered. Although the Scripture is not clear, tradition holds that they gathered again in the Upper Room. The Risen Lord had left them again, and they were once again alone. The reading from Acts says that “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.”

There is a connection here between what has just happened and the moment of creation. If you recall the story of creation, God spoke all things into being except for humanity. When God created humanity, it was with God’s own hands. God formed humanity from the dust of the earth. But then, a most extraordinary thing happened. God breathed life into the nostrils of humanity and gave them life. The breath of God gave life to God’s creation.

One of my favorite readings from the Great Vigil of Easter is the reading from Ezekiel, the Dry Bones passage. It is a strange passage of a man in a valley that is filled with dry bones. There is this exchange back and forth about animating the dry bones in that valley. “Can these bones live?” This question is put to the man in the valley, and he is told to preach to them. Further, he is told that these bones are the people of Israel and that the man is to preach the coming of the Kingdom of God.

On its own, this passage might seem a bit strange but placed into the feast of Pentecost, it starts to become more apparent. The Ezekiel passage is one of the options for Pentecost along with Acts. This passage is often not read, giving way to the Acts passage, but I hold that these two passages taken together is what this feast is all about.

I mentioned earlier that I don’t like to think of this feast as the “birthday of the Church.” I prefer to think of this day as the reanimation of the Church. The Church existed since the beginning of the creation. That moment God breathed his breath into the nostrils of humanity, the Church was born. But the Church had become dry, like those bones in the valley. Just as God repaired the relationship between God and humanity with the birth of Jesus Christ, God was reanimating the Church by, once again, animating creation with God’s breath.

The passage from Acts says that there were a great many staying in Jerusalem, and when they heard the noise, the noise of the great rushing wind, they call came. The Church was making noise, and the people came. They came and heard the message of God’s love in their language. They were diverse in their number, and yet they came together. Those who came joked and poked fun and said the Apostles were drunk, and perhaps they were intoxicated with the Spirit of God.

Then Peter arose and spoke. Peter recounted all that had happened and why it happened. This simple fisherman was filled with confidence in his words that all were astonished as I am sure Peter was. If we continue to read this chapter, the outcome of what was spoken becomes evident. Scripture tells us that some three thousand were baptized and added to their number.

The Great Feast of Pentecost does not celebrate the birthday of the Church; the Great Feast of Pentecost commemorates the reanimation of the dry bones of the Church. The Holy Spirit came upon the Church and reanimated the bones, put flesh back on those dry bones, and blew the breath of God, once again into the nostrils of the Church.

For over a year, we have been hold up in the Upper Room. The pandemic has kept us from those we love and from the things we like to do. Sure, we have worshipped together through the miracle of modern technology, but it has not been the same. Many of us are coming out of lockdown, albeit slowly, and our lives are starting to change, and some semblances of our former activities are returning.

Although the Church was never closed, she is also starting to emerge from lockdown in a vastly different place. I think the Church’s place today is a much better place than before the lockdown. I said it early on, the Holy Spirit is calling us to something new. God is breathing a fresh breath on the Church to reanimate its dry bones, and the Church is being called back into a world of relevance and service.

It is time for the Church to make a noise as it did on that first Pentecost. It is time for the Church to speak in the language that all will understand. It’s time that the Church reclaims its boldness of preaching that God loves all without exception and without condition.

Peter rose and spoke the truth of what God has done and continues to do for us. God loves us to such an extent that he sent Jesus to show us the way, and he sent the Spirit to continue to guide us. On this day of Pentecost, let us recommit ourselves to that boldness. Let us recommit ourselves to being bold advocates for the poor and those of the margins of life. And let us recommit ourselves to showing that unconditional love of God for all of creation.

Amen

Sermon: Guided in Prayer

John 17:6-19

In the life of one who claims to be a Christian, prayer must be central. When we arise in the morning or before we close our eyes at night, prayer should be on our lips. Before we undertake any task, be it personal or communal, we should offer that task in prayer to God. Christians are or at least should be a people of prayer.

But what is prayer? Prayer, simply put, is conversation. It is a sacred conversation between you and God. The language can be formal or informal. The prayers can be spontaneous or memorized. We can pray with Scriptures like the psalms, or we can pray through the singing of hymns and other songs that bring praise to God. And we can pray by using our very lives as prayer.

If we look through Scripture, especially the Gospels, we will see that prayer is central to the community. Jesus prays often and encourages others to do the same. Jesus left us the perfect prayer, the prayer we say in almost every worship service, the Lord’s Prayer. The critical thing to remember is the words are not as important as the intention behind those words. If we are sincere in our prayer, then that prayer will be pleasing to God.

Now, prayer is not magic. That is not how it works. I was reminded many years ago that all prayers are answered, and sometimes the answer is no. I am not going to get into why this happens or that happens or why this prayer is answered, and this prayer is not. It is a mystery that we are not supposed to understand. But when we pray for ourselves, for the world, and for those who have asked us for prayer, our intention should be that our prayer is heard by God, which it always is, and that the prayer is granted according to the will of God. God’s will is not always our will, and sometimes that is difficult to understand.

In today’s Gospel lesson from John, Jesus is praying to the Father. We are near the end of the story here, and he is about to ascend, and so he is praying one last time here on earth for those he will leave behind. Jesus knows they are ready, but he also knows what they are about to experience, and he is asking God to protect them. Not to keep them from what is going to happen but to protect them whilst it happens.

There is an interesting line here in verse 11. In his prayer, he says that he no longer of the world and will be leaving to return to the Father. Jesus prays for the protection of his friends. But he prays not for their protection from danger, as I have already mentioned, but he prays “that they may be one, as we are one.” At this moment, Jesus is praying for the unity of the Church, for the unity of the witness of the Church, the unity, the oneness that Jesus shares with the Father is the essence of the trinitarian relationship.

So, this should give us pause to ask a question, are we one? I don’t mean are we one homogenous Christian Church, no, and I don’t think we need to be. But are we of one mind?

Jesus came into a world more than 2,000 years ago that is not unlike the world we live in today. There are the haves and the have nots, and the haves want to make sure they continue to have at the expense of those who have not. Jesus preached a radical message of love and inclusion of all, and the Church needs to be a place where that radical theology is lived out.

In verse 14, Jesus says, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world.” Yes, the world will hate us; the world does hate us because we preach and live a radical form of living that goes against everything that the world wants us to be. The world wants us to care only for ourselves, even at the expense of others. The world wants us to take everything we can, even if it means we leave some with nothing. And the world wants us to justify those actions by saying things like, “they are lazy” or “they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” All of which flies in the face of the radical message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It is not easy to be counter-cultural, but it is what Christians are called to be.

How can we come here and praise God on Sunday and then curse our fellow humans on Monday? How can we come here and praise God from “whom all blessings flow” if when we leave, we support policies and politicians that do not lift up the most vulnerable? How can we come here on Sunday and praise God, who is the bridge builder, and then on Monday cheer as we continue to build walls that separate? And how can we come here, lift our voice and our hands in praise to a brown-skinned, nappy-headed, poor carpenter from the middle east and then stand by and watch the rights of those who do not look like us or love like us, or believe like us be taken away?

To be a Christian is to be a person of action!

I read a quote one time, I cannot remember where I read it or who wrote it, and I searched for it this morning whilst I was preparing these words, but it goes something like, “I prayed to God to ask why he has done thinking to help the poor, and God asked me the same question.” I started this by saying that prayer is a conversation. Conversation requires a sender and a receiver, one who talks and one who listens. How often in our prayer do we spend time listening? Is our prayer a laundry list of things we want and people we want to pray for, or is it that and then a time when we say, “speak Lord, your servant is listening.”

It is great that we pray for the world and for the alleviation of all the nastiness in the world, but what are we doing about it? We may not be called to march; we may not be called to protest, but we are being called to do something. We find that something when we take time to listen to that still, small voice urging us on to make this world a better place.

I often quote Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, because he has a way to take all of the complex theological issues and boil them down into things that we can understand. Bishop Curry says, “The way of Jesus is the way of love. And the way of love will change the world.”

Let us resolve to leave this place today and be more loving toward one another because that love will spread, and that love will change the world.

Amen.

Are you my friends?

John 15:9-17

Are you my friends? This is the question that Jesus is asking in this week’s passage from the Gospel of St. John. Jesus does not really ask this question, but he does go about telling those listening and those us reading what it takes to be his friend what the criteria will be used.

For more than a year, I have been working towards membership in the Mayflower Society. If you are unfamiliar, the Mayflower Society has as its members’ direct descendants of passengers from the Mayflower. To join, one must prove their linage to one or more passengers. One does this by researching the various lines in one’s family tree and producing birth, death, and marriage records for each of those persons. After a year or more research, I am still unable to become a member because I am missing one document, a birth record from the 1700s. As frustrating as this is, to join, I have to follow the rules.

Each club or organization one wishes to be a part of has membership rules. Some, like the Mayflower Society, have stringent regulations. Thankfully, the rules to be a friend of Jesus are not so strict and are within the grasp of everyone.

“If you keep my commands you remain in my love.” Notice that Jesus says, “my commends.” Further on, Jesus comments that he has “kept my father’s commands and remain in his love.” But Jesus does not leave us hanging; he tells us exactly what his command is. “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” It really is that simple; just love everyone!

We, humans, have made all this so complicated. We have established a system designed not to build bridges but to build walls. Many, many churches focus not on what will teach the love of everyone but rather on what will separate people. Jesus told us that to be his friend; we must love everyone. Jesus never even says we must worship him; he simply states love, everyone.

The great spiritual writer Thomas Merton has this to say about loving others, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether they are worthy. That is not our business, and in fact, it’s nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself with render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy is anything can.” We love people for their sake, but we also love people for our own sake.

Jesus’ command to love everyone has nothing to do with acceptance of their actions or choices. My guess is they don’t really care if you accept them or not. Jesus’ command to love everyone comes from the fact that each of us contains the divine spark, the Ruach, the very breath of God. When God was creating all that we see, God created most everything by speaking it into existence. God spoke, and there was light. God spoke, and there were trees and plants. God spoke, and there were animals.

When God created humanity, God took the dust from the earth with his very hands. God fashioned humanity in God’s image, and when God had created humanity God breathed God’s breath into the nostrils of humanity and gave life to God’s creation. Humanity is the only portion of creation that God breathed life into. This is the Imago Dei, the Image of God, and we love others because, just like us, they contain the very breath of God.

I know I am a little late to the game with this, but in the last year or so, I have become acquainted with the greeting “Namaste.” Quite simply, Namaste means the divine in me greets the divine in you. It is an acknowledgment that whatever else, we all contain a bit of the divine. I believe that we can all benefit from greeting one another with Namaste.

Bishop Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, says that I think summarizes this exceptionally well. Bishop Curry says, “The way of Jesus is the way of love and the way of love will change the world.”

Friends, let us spend more time loving everyone and less time worrying about what this one or that one is doing. Just love people for who they are because that is the way God loves you!

Amen.

Scripture Mediation: Abiding in Love

John 15:1-8

My wife and I have begun working in our back garden. We started last year ripping out old plants and turning over the planting beds to make way for new growth. This year that task continues, but we have decided to expand our garden to make room for vegetable plants. I am not sure how many or what varieties we will plant, but the way has been cleared for this year and for future expansion.

Most of what we dug, we moved to other locations in the garden, but some plants we gave away, and some tossed on the pile. The garden has been overgrown from lack of attention over the years, and we are working to reclaim planting beds from invasive plants. It is not an easy decision, but sometimes, other plants have to go for the health of other plants.

In the Gospel passage appointed for today from the Gospel of John, Jesus uses the image of pruning a vine. The pruning of plants is an essential and healthy part of gardening. By pruning plants, the energy of the plant is redirected chiefly to the growth of that plant. If dead or sick branches are removed, the plant will come back stronger and healthier.

Jesus uses this image to help us focus on our spiritual life. Whatever does not bear fruit in our spiritual life, whatever is sick or dead in our spiritual life, cut it off and dispose of it. To have a fruitful spiritual life, we need to be operating at our best, and that cannot happen if we are carrying things that do not bear fruit in our lives.

Our bodies are made up of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual if one part of our body is not functioning properly, the other parts will also not work properly. To remain healthy, we need to adopt a healthy lifestyle. There are hundreds of books and articles on the topic of keeping our bodies in their shape. Do this exercise, eat this food, cut out that food, and all the rest. We spend thousands of hours and thousands of dollars each year on our physical body, but what of the mental and spiritual?

Many folks work with a personal trainer or nutritionist to get their physical bodies in shape. If you desire to get your spiritual life in shape, work with a spiritual director, guide, or coach. Just as the personal trainer will help you work with this machine or that machine, the Spiritual Director will assist in getting your spiritual life tuned to its highest potential.

To have proper balance in our lives, all three areas have to be working at their best. Just as we cut things out of our physical lives, we should do the same in our spiritual and mental lives. Getting our spiritual life in tune takes time and daily practice. Just like our physical bodies, our spiritual needs to be conditioned, so take it slow and build up over time.

Friends, take time to get your spiritual life in shape. Prune away those things that do not bear fruit in your lives, and you will see a difference.

Amen.

Scripture Meditation: Enfolded by Love

John 10:11-18

On Tuesday, I had the honor of presiding at a funeral for a hospice patient. He died in December, and due to COVID restrictions, the family decided to wait until this past week for his funeral. This is becoming the new normal, and it is delaying or extending people’s grief. But we all must do what we must do these days.

Last Sunday, after I spent a little time with you, my family gathered at a beautiful spot for the internment of our parents. My mother died in 2018, and my father died the following year, but it was not until Sunday last that we put them in their final resting place.

Like many folks, I tuned in last Saturday to watch the funeral of His Royal Highness Prince Philip. It was a wonderful tribute to an amazing character, and it reminded me again of the pageantry that is England.

I share these experiences with you to illustrate that it does not matter if you are a Prince or a Plumber; in the end, we all go out the same way and with the same prayers. At all three services, the 23rd Psalm was used:

“The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want….” You know the rest. This Psalm brings me much joy and much comfort.

Today, on the Church calendar, it is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, and this Sunday gets that name from the Gospel reading from St. John that we just heard. Jesus says to those listening, “I am the Good Shepherd.”

Sheepherding is an incredibly difficult, lonely, and boring business, which is more so during the time of Jesus. Shepherds would stand for hours upon hours in the same place, watching their sheep. If the heard was large enough, hired hands would be brought on to help but, since they did not have a vested interest in the heard, maybe they did not pay as close attention to the job.

The Shepherd has one job, keep the flock safe. There are many predators of sheep, and it is Shepherd’s job to keep those predators away, to not put the sheep into situations where the predators can get at them, and make sure they have adequate food and water. If all of this is provided, the sheep take care of themselves. Sheep are not the brightest animals that God ever created, but for the Shepherd, they are his life.

When Jesus spoke to the crowds, he always used images that they would understand. The people in the audience were fisherman, shepherds, and tradespeople. When Jesus spoke, he wanted them to understand what he was saying. They did not always get it, but they would have understood the images he was using.

In the Gospel, Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd and that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. He says that the hired hand does not care about the sheep the same way the Shepherd does and that when he sees danger coming, he runs off. On the other hand, when the Shepherd sees trouble coming, he must place himself between the sheep and that danger.

One of the more complex theological concepts I struggle with is the atonement, the idea that Jesus had to die as repayment for our sins and the sins of those who came before us. I struggle with this because, in my mind, this does not jive well with the image of God being love. As a parent, I cannot understand how anyone would intentionally cause harm to their child, and God is no different. My theology teaches me that the so-called “repayment” for our sins was not the cross but the cradle, that the long since the strained relationship between God and humanity was restored not with the death of Jesus but with the birth of Jesus.

So, what’s the deal with Jesus dying then? I’m glad you asked.

Looking through Scripture and following in the steps of Jesus, we are witnesses to acts of love. Jesus heals out of love. Jesus feeds people out of love. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead out of love. Jesus taught us to love, love God, and love others. The incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, was God’s love for creation. Jesus came not to die in some grizzly death but to show us a new way to live. Jesus came to show us the way of love.

Jesus willingly went to the cross as the ultimate expression of love. Jesus went to the cross because he is the Good Shepherd that is protecting the sheep from danger and that danger is not loving. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and we are the flock, and love is protecting us from danger.

Friends, the message of Easter is not death and life; the message of Easter is love! The love that Jesus showed by willing going to his own death, he did not have to, but he went to show us what love can do. Jesus stretched out his arms on the hardwood of the cross not to repay some debt but to show us the way of love. God is not the God of smiting and retribution causing hurricanes and tornadoes to wipe people out, God is the God that created everything out of love, and the greatest expression of that love is that the Shepherd is willing to lay down his life.

As we continue in this service and as we continue with our week, let us look for ways that we can be love to those around us.

Amen.

Scripture Meditation: Christ Among Us

Luke 24:36-48

Imagine yourself in a locked room because you are fearful of what is going to come next. You are still trying to make sense of what has happened over the last few days when, as Scripture relates the story:

“Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your minds?”

I love this line, “They were startled and frightened…. Jesus said to them, why are troubled…?”

How many times in our lives have we been troubled that might have been taken away with someone saying to us, peace be with you.

Why are we troubled?

You just walked through a locked door! But Jesus says to them, Peace, it’s me, look at my wounds and see for yourself. Then he gets to the real reason for his visit; he was hungry.

Peace be with you. In all the gospel stories of the Resurrection and first appearances, Jesus says to them; Peace be with you. In a way, this is a reminder back to the Palm Sunday story. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, a humble beast as a sign of one who comes to bring peace.

I can only imagine how I would have felt to be sitting there, scared for my life, knowing that my friend was dead, and then poof, there he is right in front of me. I believe saying Peace be with you is the least he could do at that moment.

But Jesus is just that; he is the one who brings peace. One of his titles is the Prince of Peace.

Like many people around the world yesterday, I watched the funeral of HRH Prince Philip. I was struck by the image of the Queen, dressed in black, sitting all alone in the chapel for the funeral of the man she spent all her adult life with. She sat there as they brought his flag-draped casket in. She sat a listened to readings and the prayers. And she sat and watched as they carried him to his resting place.

Funerals are not for the dead; funerals are for those of us left behind. Funerals are designed to help us cope with the loss of the one we loved. Funerals are supposed to bring some level of peace in our world that is swirling all around us. I hope she could find a little peace yesterday that will help her in the days and weeks to come.

Many times, in Scripture, Jesus comes on the scene and brings this peace that passes all understanding. One of my favorites is the story of the disciples on their boat and in a storm. They wake and are frightened, and Jesus is still sleeping. They wake him, and he brings calm. Scriptures tells us that Jesus calms the waves of the water that was tossing that little boat around.

There was another time, again on the water, when the disciples saw Jesus walking toward them. They were frightened that what they saw. I mean, who wouldn’t be? But Jesus brought calm and peace to them at that very moment. When Peter decided he wanted to walk on water as well, and when he began to sink and cried out, Jesus reached out and brought calm to his life.

But what about our own lives? Are there times when you could use a little peace?

In my life, when things are going crazy, I turn to prayer. Over the years, my prayer life has been good and not so good. It is the time when my prayer life is good when I make the time to read Scripture each day that a sense of peace comes over me. I will not say life is perfect in those times, but it seems that the little things don’t bother me as much.

Finding peace these days is not always easy. Sometimes I feel like those first disciples hiding in that upper room with the door locked in fear of what will happen next. Sometimes I am afraid to open the door because I am not sure what is on the other side. In those times, we need to ask Jesus to come into our midst and bring that peace.

My prayer for us today is that we can find that peace in our lives or that we can be that peace for another.

Amen.

Scripture Meditation: Marks of Faith

John 20:19-31

They had just lost their friend and mentor. They watched him brutally murdered. They watched in horror but could do nothing to stop it. Their entire world has been turned upside down. Scripture tells us that they were locked inside because they feared that the authorities were coming for them next. One of them, probably sitting in the corner all by himself, was coming to grips with his denial. No one knew what to do next.

Then, like a flash, he was there. The friend they saw murdered just hours before was standing there right in front of them. How did he get in? Is he a ghost? How can this be we saw him die? The questions running through their heads must have been overwhelming. Maybe it’s the wine. Perhaps it’s a lack of sleep. But here he is. Scripture tells us he simply says, “Peace be with you.”

The familiar greeting of their friend. But how can this be? He died. We watched them put him in the tomb and roll that enormous stone over the opening. The door was locked, yet here he is, standing right in front of us talking. Maybe it’s a dream.

Then “he showed them his hands and his side.” Jesus, is it really you? But they still had questions, but no one wanted to ask. They rejoiced that their friend had come back to them. He said to them again, “Peace be with you.”

Scripture says, “he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” Reminiscent of Genesis when God, after having created humanity, breathed life into the nostrils of his creation. At creation, God’s breath animated humanity, and now, Jesus, who is God, is breathing the breath of God in the form of the Holy Spirit to animate them for the mission. It is complete; the relationship between God and humanity has been restored to what it once was.

But for some reason, Thomas was not present. Scripture leaves no clue why Thomas was not with the rest that first night and we can only speculate. When Thomas returns, Jesus is gone, and the others tell him what had happened. How can this be? We watched him die. Scripture tells us that Thomas said, “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.” Thomas wants proof.

It took a week for Thomas to get the proof he was looking for. Thomas sat with his doubt for a week. The others gave him space and did not deride him or make fun of him for his questions; they simply let him be. Thomas needed time to process it all, and the others gave him that space.

Then it happened. They had gathered again, and this Thomas was with them. I am sure he cleared his calendar, for he was not going to miss it this time. Maybe it was belief, and perhaps he wanted to prove the others wrong. Whatever it was, it drew Thomas to that place, that place of memories of happier times just a few weeks before.

Then it happened. No flash of light. No trumpet blasts. No smoke. Only Jesus, standing there. “Peace be with you,” he said to them. Then he turned to Thomas. Jesus knew he had questions. Jesus says to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

But Thomas does not touch Jesus. He looks at Jesus and says, “My Lord and my God!” Notice what happens next; Jesus asks him a question but does not wait for an answer, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” He does not scold Thomas for his lack of faith; he uses this time to teach more. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Thomas is all of us who have questions. This story is essential as it shows that it is okay to question, have doubts, and want proof. Faith is believing without seeing, and that is not easy. We are being asked to consider something that there is no proof for, nothing that can be seen or examined. Thomas had the opportunity to touch the risen Jesus, but what he saw was enough for him.

After Jesus healed the young man, the man’s father said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” This should be our prayer; help us in our doubts, and in those times, we find it hard to believe. We do not have to believe everything we were taught as children or that we hear as adults. However, the one article of faith that it is crucial to believe is that God loves each of us and forgives each of us.

I find great comfort in these words that Paul wrote to the church in Rome, and I pray they bring you some comfort. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) Amen

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