Sermon: Wherever You Are

Psalm 23
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

My primary ministry occupation is as a chaplain for the Brockton Visiting Nurses Association. I work as part of the hospice team, and along with the nurses, home health aides, and social workers, we provided services and care to people who are nearing the end of their journey here on earth. The medical folks bring relief from pain; the social workers help ensure that the paperwork is in order and help calm the mind of the patients and families. I work in spiritual care, and it is my job to ready the soul for the next phase of that journey.

When I tell people what I do, the most common response I hear is, “that must be so difficult.” I would think working 25 floors above the city of Boston on the steel beams of a new building is difficult. I would think working in fields harvesting the food we eat regardless of the weather would be difficult. Most jobs have their moments of difficulty, but I try to focus on the blessings that come along with my job. In hospice, we have a simple philosophy, ensure that our patients and their families have a peaceful death.

Today we heard the verses of one of the most famous Psalms of the 150 contained in the Bible. Most, if not all of us sitting here this morning have prayed, read, listen to, or sung the words of this Psalm on several occasions. It is, for lack of a better term, the funeral Psalm. But it is also the Psalm that I use when I am sitting with a patient as this phase of their life draws to a close.

As beautiful and as comforting as the words of this Psalm are, the imagery that is used is often lost and misunderstood.

I am not sure how many Shepherds we have with us this morning, but my guess is not many. I am also not sure how many of you have been around sheep apart from a petting zoo. But, again, I would guess not many. The image of Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” is an image that we are all familiar with but, if Jesus is the “Good Shepherd,” that makes us the sheep.

Now we have all heard, and rightly so, that sheep are not the most intelligent animals that God created. They are herd animals. They are defenseless. They are vulnerable. They are, as I already mentioned, unintelligent. These are not very positive attributes, and it might leave us wondering why the Psalmist and the writers of the Gospels used this image when describing those following God.

Is this the image that we should be focusing on?  No, it is not.

These are the attributes or characteristics that the Psalmist or the writers of the Gospel want us to focus on. The writer of the 23rd Psalm writes about the utter dependence of the sheep on the shepherd. Sheep cannot survive making their own way. Sheep have an absolute dependency on the shepherd. Sheep can trust the shepherd. Knowing this dependence brings into focus the central testimony of the Psalm: the shepherd is faithful.

The world tells us that we have to make our own way; we have to strike out independently. We are told that if we want something, we need to go for it and take it, regardless of the cost or what it might do to others. People, especially those in our way, are disposable, and if they do not serve our needs, they are just a distraction or a stumbling block. In our quest to be individuals, we have become selfish.

But Jesus comes along and stands that on its head. We cannot claim to be followers of Jesus and not care about others. We cannot claim to be followers of Jesus and not have concern for others. We cannot claim to be followers of Jesus and only look out for ourselves. If we claim to be followers of Jesus, then we must put others and their needs before ours. If we claim to follow Jesus, then we must love everyone without exception and without condition.

But the Psalmist is seeking to help us understand we cannot do this alone that there are going to be moments in our lives when we cannot see a clear way or when we cannot find the path, and it is in these times that we become utterly dependent on the Shepherd.

One of my favorite spiritual poems is the one called “Footprints in the Sand.” I know some find it schmaltzy and perhaps a little too sugary for their taste, but the image is powerful. You know the poem, so I will not recite it, but it is about walking beside God, two sets of footprints in the sand. There is only one set of footprints at several points along the way, and the narrator of the poem asks God why God left him? The response is that God did not leave the narrator behind but was carrying him. Therefore, there was only one set of footprints, and those footprints belonged to God.

Friends, when things are going well, we lose sight of the need for the shepherd. When life is chugging along, all the traffic lights are green; we find that parking spot right in front of the store, or all the other gifts of life, we forget that other set of footprints. We think that we can do it alone, we do not need any help or protection, and maybe that is true. But walking beside us, as our constant companion is the shepherd.

Yesterday I was trying to organize my shop where I work on various projects. My wife and I buy and sell antiques, so there is always something that needs fixing. I share my shop space in my garage with all the other necessities of life, so we are in a constant state of reorganizing. As I was cleaning off the workbench, I came across several rusty and bent screws. As I picked them up to toss them in the bin, I distinctly heard my father’s voice say, “don’t throw those away, you might need them.”

My father was a saver, and when he died, I inherited his collection of odd nails, screws, and other such things. The voice I heard was not the shepherd’s voice the Psalmist is talking about, but that voice did guide me. I know it sounds funny and maybe a little trivial, but I was guided by the voice of someone who had cared for me and protected me all my life.

Are you walking with the shepherd? Right now, are there two sets of footprints or only one? Are the footprints side by side or one behind the other? God never promised that life would be easy. The promise from God is that we will not have to go through it alone. God is steadfast, and God is faithful.

By the way, I saved the screws.

Amen.

Spirituality of Place

Back in my middle teen years, my mother and I were driving on Route 3A in Hingham. I have no memory of where we were going, but at one point, she pulled our care over and point off into the distance. Just over the tree line was a tower and on the top of that tower was a cross. I had no idea at that moment in time, but that was the start of a relationship with Glastonbury Abbey that has continued for many years.

If you have been reading these pages for any length of time, you know that back in the mid 90’s I was a professed member of the Benedictine Community at Glastonbury Abbey. Glastonbury is a small community of Roman Catholic men seeking spiritual life and living according to the Rule of St. Benedict. As it is for all Benedictine Monasteries, the rhythm of Glastonbury is that of work and prayer. Five times a day, the bell summons the monks to prayer, and in between, they provided hospitality to pilgrims.

Glastonbury is where I received my first formation in praying and reading the scriptures prayerfully. These are skills that I have continued to use in my ministry. Glastonbury was also the place where I first encountered the Church of the East in great depth. I did not know it at the time, but that exploration would lead to my eventual ordination and service in the Orthodox Church.

My years at Glastonbury were years of self-exploration. Long periods of silence lead one to turn inward and explore who you are and what you are all about. Those years were also years of exploring my relationship with God and examining the call that I was coming to grips with. Although my ministry and the place I minister have changed over the years, my calling to ministry has stayed true, and it was those years, alone in my room underneath the chapel, where that call became apparent.

Glastonbury Abbey holds an extraordinary place in my heart for all the reasons I have just mentioned. Glastonbury has also been the place of events that have marked my life. My wife and I were married on the grounds of Glastonbury in the shadow of that tower that my mother pointed out all those years before. Glastonbury is the place where we have laid our parents to rest and will be the place that I am laid to rest when my time comes.

This spring, my wife and I started to attend Mass at Glastonbury. The Sunday morning Mass takes place on the great lawn, which is abundantly easier on our 14-month-old daughter. But it has also given me time to reconnect to the community. Although I am no longer entitled to call myself “brother,” I still feel very much at home and peace when I am there.

Glastonbury Abbey is a very spiritual place, and the monks there open their hearts and their home to pilgrims in search of whatever it is that they are in search of. But, for me, Glastonbury Abbey is a thin place, that place where heaven and earth come very close and almost touch.

I am glad my mother pulled that car over on the side of the road all of those years ago.

God Inspired Joy

Ephesians 1:3-14

Recently I was visiting with a lady who is nearing the end of her life. She was telling me about her life, the joys, the sorrows, and the regrets. Finally, she asked me if I would hear her confession. “Of course,” I said, “it would be my honor.” She shared with me things that she had not spoken of in many years, but she had a smile on her face while she was speaking. She would pause now and again to recall and detail or two; sometimes, she would chuckle a little and say, “oh, I cannot share that.”

When she was finished, we chatted a little more about her feelings of guilt and shame for what she had done, but we also talked about God’s love and God’s grace. I assured her that she is and always has been loved by God and that she is forgiven. She sank back in her chair, visibly exhausted from our conversation. She closed her eyes and sat in silken for a time. It is in these times I have learned just to be still and know.

After a few moments had passed, she opened her eyes and looked at me. Visibly she was the same person who had been sitting in front of me for about an hour but spiritually, she had changed. She looked into my eyes and thanked me. My friend told me that she felt like a burden had been lifted from her and that she was ready for whatever came next. She told me that she knew that she was forgiven, but it was nice to hear it from another and speak of things she had never spoken of. I was honored to have been a part of the next steps.

Today’s passage of Scripture comes to us from the Letter to the Ephesians. The Letter is written, it is believed by St. Paul while he was imprisoned in Rome sometime between 61-63 CE. Although it is written in the form of a letter, the are no personal greetings, unlike St. Paul’s other letters. It is written to “the Saints who are at Ephesus,” but it is believed that St. Paul was writing universally, and as such, this Letter should be placed alongside the Pastoral Epistles of James and Peter.

All of this shows that St. Paul is writing to a much larger audience than the church gathered at Ephesus; St. Paul is writing to wherever the church was and is gathered. This passage is about the love that God has for each of us and for all of creation and the desire that God has that we come to know God and Jesus Christ and to love others just as they love us.

St. Paul writes of the blessings that have been bestowed upon us in Christ Jesus, redemption, and forgiveness of our trespasses. We have an abundance of grace that has been lavished upon us, and all of this has been planned since “before the foundation of the world” (v4). Think about that; God loved us before the creation of the world. Before everything that we see around us, God loved us.

The focus of what St. Paul writes is on the action and actions of God. None of this is brought about by our efforts; it is a gift to us from God. There is nothing for us to do but “live for the praise of his glory” (v12). The Westminster Catechism sums it up best; our “chief aim” is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.

These words from St. Paul remind us of the love that God has for us, and the words that St. Paul uses express just what kind of love it is; excessive, tender, and richly abundant. But this is not just about us as individuals. St. Paul tells us that this is about something larger than ourselves. There is constant use of plural pronouns to remind us that God’s blessings are not individual but for the community of Christ.

We are blessed in Christ; we are chosen in Christ; we are destined for adoption through Christ. In Christ, we have obtained our inheritance, and our hope is set on Christ.

We have been offered this extraordinary gift as our own, and we have been invited to share God’s riches and God’s grace. This has all been made possible through Jesus Christ that we might live as God’s own children.

During the visit I shared about, the burdens of one’s life had been lifted from her, not by anything I had done or anything I had said. The grace of God lifted her burdens in that moment of her life. Did I need to be there? Well, that can be a discussion for another time, but her confession was not to me; at that moment, she was speaking to God who loves her very much; I was simply the witness to the conversation and assured of her forgiveness.

God’s grace was present at that moment for her but also for me. God’s grace is a gift that is freely given to us; our task is to share that grace with others this day and every day.

Amen.

Sermon Plagiarism

It has been several months since I have had to preach a weekly sermon, but I write a short mediation on Scripture each week. Each week I spend time reading and meditating on a Scripture passage from the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday. I consult commentaries and other sources for inspiration, and I draw from my own experience. As a preacher and teacher, I believe that each time we put pen to paper to climb in a pulpit, the message must have relevance to the reader or hearer’s daily life.

A new controversy has emerged in the preaching world, plagiarism, and it has given me pause for thought. I have never preached another’s sermon and passed it off as my own, but I have quoted from commentaries and other sources and have not been diligent in citing those sources. In my not citing these sources, it might appear that these words are my own when they are not.

Recently, the Rev. Ed Litton, the newly elected President of the Southern Baptist Convention, has become embroiled in a controversy that has been dubbed “Sermongate.” Some allege Rev. Litton’s sermons are not entirely his own and that he has “borrowed” whole passages from others. Several Youtube videos have appeared comparing Rev. Litton’s sermons with others. His congregation, Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama, has removed several sermon videos with the notice that the sermons were removed because some had been “going through sermons in an attempt to discredit and malign our pastor.”

There does seem to be a political motivation afoot to discredit Rev. Litton, as outlined in this article in the New York Times. The more conservative arm of the SBC is not happy that Rev. Litton was elected as President and, it appears, will stop at nothing to discredit him and try and force him to resign. Be that as it may, it still opens the discussion on what is and is not appropriate in sermons.

In the New York Times article I linked to above; several preachers are quoted as saying pulpit plagiarism is “despicable” and “unthinkable,” and one Florida pastor who is also a critic of Rev. Litton is quoted as saying, “This is an issue of morality, and it’s an issue of Christian virtue.” So, I must ask, would any of their sermons stand up to the scrutiny that the sermons of Rev. Litton have?

One thing is clear; I will certainly be a lot more careful when I write, deliver, and then post sermons.

Ruth Graham, “‘Sermongate’ Prompts a Quandary: Should Pastors Borrow Words From One Another?” The New York Times. Accessed July 9, 2021 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/06/us/sermongate-plagiarism-litton-greear.html

Listen

A large part of my spirituality comes from my formation as a Benedictine Monk. Although it has been many years since I lived within the monastery walls, the Rule of St. Benedict still speaks to me, and the rhythm of work and prayer are a large part of my life.

Listen is the first word in the Rule of St. Benedict, for listening is of the utmost importance in the spiritual life and other parts of our lives. In his masterful commentary on the Rule, Terrance Kardong writes that “This beginning sets the tone of RB (Rule of St. Benedict) as practical wisdom on how to live the monastic life.” (pg 5). He goes on to write that “The first verse explains the full significance of listening: complete attention of the whole person; good will; implementation.” (pg 5)

“Complete attention of the whole person.” In modern terminology, this would be called active listening. In active listening, one does not listen to speak but listens with the whole person. We listen with our eyes as well as with our ears. We listen with full attention to what the other is saying. We take it in and ruminate on it. Finally, we remain silent and still with our minds given entirely to what the other is saying.

Listening is essential in prayer as well as in human interactions. Most of the time, we pray to give God our laundry list of the things we want. Then, dear God, please pray for so and so and such and such. When we finish, we get up and get on with our day. We do not linger with God. We do not hang around for God’s answer. We are not attentive to that still, small voice waiting to guide us and comfort us on our journey.

In his rule, Benedict explains why we need to listen. “Listen, O my son, to the teachings of your master, and turn to them with the ear of your heart.” There was a double meaning for Benedict in his words. The “Master” is both the rule and God. By listening to the rule, we find a more intimate relationship with God, who speaks and guides us in all we do.

For those of us outside of the monastery, the admonition to listen is just as important. We may not have a rule of life, although this might be a topic for another essay, we can and should listen to God. Prayer, another word for conversation, is a two-way street. Exchanges are not one-sided; otherwise, they would be lectures. We speak, and then if we listen, God speaks.

Listening is a skill that takes time to learn and master. As previously mentioned, listening involves all our senses, not just our ears. We watch for body language and clues. We feel the energy in the room, and we might even taste the sweetness or bitterness of the words spoken.

There is a saying attributed to St. Moses the Black, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” Abba Moses was one of the Desert Fathers, and folks would come to him seeking advice. In this case, the advice Abba Moses was giving had been given to him some time before. For the monastic, the cell is their room, the place for private prayer and contemplation. The monastic sits alone and in silence—just the monk and God. At first, it is exceedingly difficult as the mind wanders. We are not used to silence, and we get nervous with too much silence. But sit in silence we must, for it is in the silence that God comes.

Go and find a quiet place and sit in silence with God. Be thankful for those moments of silence and “listen, O my son, to the sound of the Master’s voice.”

Kardong, Terrance G. Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1981

A Look Back at 17 Years of Ministry

This will not be my usual Sunday Scripture Meditation, for today is the 17th Anniversary of my ordination as Priest in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I have been ordained longer than I have done anything else in my life, and it has been the most blessed as well as the most challenging.

Ordination day is a bit of a blur for me. I remember it being a hot day at Sts Constantine and Helen Romanian Orthodox Cathedral in Chicago. The previous days had been spent in the annual gathering of clergy and laity of the Romanian Archdiocese, and I was ordained deacon the day before. The Holy Place was filled with the priests of the Archdiocese gathered around our Bishop and the altar.

At the appointed time in the Liturgy, 2 of the senior priests led me out of the Holy Place and presented me to the Bishop. After I was led, for the first time through the royal doors, those in the center led around the altar three times, pausing each time in front of the altar for a prostration. While the deacon, soon to be Priest, is led around the altar, the chanter, and choir sing psalms, the same psalms sung and chanted at the wedding ceremony as the couple is led around the table.

I knelt at the consecrated altar, placed my hands on it as the Bishop read the prayer of ordination. I recall sweat running down my back, and not sure if it was because it was so hot or because of the immensity of that moment. You kneel alone, but you are surrounded by all of the others who have gone before you and those present with you. Then the Bishop prays:

“The divine grace, which always heals that which is infirm and completes that which is lacking, ordains the most devout Deacon Peter-Michael to the office of Priest.  Let us, therefore, pray for him, that the grace of the All-Holy Spirit may come upon him.”

“O God without beginning or end, Who are before every created thing, and Who honors with the title of Presbyter those whom You deem worthy to serve the word of Your truth in the divine ministry of this order: You, the same sovereign Master, preserve in purity of life and in unswerving faith this man whom You have been pleased to ordain through me by the laying on of hands, graciously imparting to him the great grace of Your Holy Spirit, making him wholly Your servant, well-pleasing to You in all things, and worthily exercising this great honor of the Priesthood which You conferred upon him by the power of Your wisdom.

For Yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, of the Father, the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and always, and to the ages of ages.”

Following a litany, the Bishop prays the following:

“O God, great in might and inscrutable in wisdom, marvelous in counsel above the sons of men: You the same Lord, fill with the gift of Your Holy Spirit this man whom it has pleased You to advance to the degree of Priest; that he may become worthy to stand in innocence before Your altar, to proclaim the Gospel of Your kingdom, to minister the word of Your truth, to offer to You spiritual gifts and sacrifices; to renew Your people through the font of regeneration, that when he shall go to meet You, at the second coming of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, Your only-begotten Son, he may receive the reward of good stewardship in the order given to him, through the plenitude of Your goodness.

For blessed and glorified is Your all-holy and majestic name, of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now, and ever and to the ages of ages.”

When the Bishop and priests are gathered, they stand around the altar in order of seniority, the oldest serving priest to the Bishop’s right, and so on around the altar. The youngest in ordination stands at the back of the altar. However, after one is ordained Priest, he is considered senior for that time and stands to the Bishop’s right for the consecration. A liturgy book is placed in your hands and the first words spoken are from the newly ordained.

I remember after my deacon ordination, I was serving Vespers that evening. The deacon has a relatively significant role during Vespers as they do during the Liturgy. As I was about to exit the Holy Place for the first of the Litanies, the Archbishop leaned over to me and asked, “you know what to do right?” I answered that I did, and he responded with a grin, “we shall see.”

It is hard to describe the feeling one gets standing at the altar during the consecration of the gifts of God that will be shared with the people of God. Knowing that God can and does work through me, a sinner, is an incredible feeling and experience. My theology teaches me that although the bread and wine do not change in their form and matter, the Holy Spirit comes upon them and blesses and sanctifies them, and Jesus is present in them, and through the reception of these gifts, grace is poured out upon his people. Standing at the altar, I am standing in the actual presence of Jesus Christ. This is a lot to take in.

After the consecration and before communion, the newly ordained Priest is led to the back of the altar. Once there, the consecrated bread is placed in his hands; this is the first time that the Body of Christ is placed in his hands. The Bishop says the following as he puts the Body of Christ in my hands:

“Receive this Divine Trust, and guard it until the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, at which time He will demand It from you.”

Being a priest is a “Divine Trust.” The souls of those that the Priest will shepherd are placed in your trust, and Orthodox Theology is that the Priest will be held responsible for those souls at the judgment. Standing there with the Body of Christ in my hands, the reality of all that has taken place indeed hits home. This is not just a job or a profession; this is a vocation, a calling from God.

Although I am no longer a priest in the Orthodox Tradition, I still believe that the care of souls is a divine trust. I still believe that I will be held responsible for each soul that has been or will be placed in my care. I still believe that the elements of bread and wine or juice become sanctified, holy, and are the real presence of Jesus Christ. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is not just some reenactment of an event that took place more than 2,000 years ago.

“Holy Communion is remembrance, commemoration, and memorial, but this remembrance is more than simply intellectual recalling. Holy Communion is a type of sacrifice. It is a re-presentation, not a repetition, of the sacrifice of Christ. Holy Communion is a vehicle of God’s grace through the action of the Holy Spirit. The Church asks God to make them be for is the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.” (This Holy Mystery)

There is a transformation of the bread and wine, and if you allow it, there will be a transformation in you.

A lot has happened since the day of my ordination. I have been blessed to have served God’s people in four congregations as well as countless hospice patients and others I have come across in my chaplain work. It has not always been easy, but it has been a blessing.

As I embark on my 18th year, I recall the words of Psalm 110:4 “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.'”

Book Review: Dear England – Finding Hope, Taking Heart and Changing the World

Are you a dreamer? Do you have a vision for what the Church can and should be?  Archbishop Stephen Cottrel, the 98th Archbishop of York, certainly does, and he outlines that dream in his new book Dear England – Finding Hope, Taking Heart and Changing the World.

The book is written as a letter to England but can undoubtedly be placed in the context of any nation. Cottrell writes after an encounter with a young woman in a coffee shop. On his way to a conference, he had stopped in to grab a coffee before boarding a train. The young woman approached him, and seeing that he was in clericals, asked him a simple question, “What made you become a priest?”

As he was in a hurry, he did not have much time to answer. He had two answers for the young woman, God and because he wanted to change the world. I share this answer with the archbishop, but I am not as eloquent when I answer. The woman answered by saying that most of the Christians she knew fell into one of two categories, those whose faith is a hobby, and the second “embraced their faith so tightly, it frightened everyone else away.” And then she asked, “Is there another way?

The answer to the young woman’s question is what the book is all about.

Written in three parts, Finding Hope, Taking Heart, and Changing the World, Cottrel shares some of his most intimate and private thoughts on where the Church is, how it got here, and with much hard work how it is going to become that beacon of hope it once was.

Peppered throughout the book are nuggets of wisdom that I call “Tweetable” as they are perfect Tweets. As I was reading, I was wondering if he wrote in this style with Twitter in mind.

Although written to and about England, this book rings true with me as a minister in the United States. Archbishop Stephen writes from a position of hope, and the vision he casts of a less inwardly focused church and more outwardly focused is refreshing. He writes of how we must first change our lives before we can change the world. But, in fact, the change we need to make in ourselves will change the world one little place at a time.

The book is pastoral and evangelical. Archbishop Stephen admits the faults and shortcomings of the Church and makes no excuses for them.

In the end, he offers hope, the hope that only Jesus Christ can bring to the darkened world. “It is never so dark that the radiance of Christ cannot illuminate the way, though sometimes the light seems very faint indeed.”

The world may seem dark, and the Church might be on the ropes, but this book comes as a beacon to light the way for the future. “In every moment, in the darkest hour, and in the eye of every storm, we have the opportunity to repent, to turn around, to receive this chance to start again and change direction.”

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication Date: 2021
Pages: 184

Scripture Meditation: Healing Powers

Mark 5:21-43

In my hospice work, I am called upon most days to offer prayers for those placed in my care. Very rarely am I asked to pray for someone’s healing but rather for a peaceful death. I also pray, which usually surprises the folks gathered around; I pray for those taking care of them: the ones who have been there and who will be there. Most of the time, the caregivers are the ones that need our prayers, but we forget about them.

Today we have two prayer stories presented to us in the Gospel of St. Mark. I call them prayer stories rather than miracle stories because the focus should be on the immense faith of the father as well as the woman who comes to Jesus. I have said this before, but it bears repeating, the focus should not be on the actual miracle but on the lesson that the miracle is trying to teach us, and in this case, as in many of the stories, that lesson is faith.

The story begins where the last one left off. The disciples and Jesus have come across after a night of storms. They have survived their harrowing journey and are now safe on the other side. As usually happens, a crowd starts to gather around Jesus. Jairus comes to Jesus and falls at his feet. This is not an unusual occurrence, except that Jairus is a leader in the Synagogue, and as such, he is taking a significant risk of coming to Jesus in this way. His daughter is very sick and Jairus, being the good father that he is, is willing to risk everything to make her well again, so he comes to Jesus. Jesus leaves with Jairus to go and attend to his daughter.

As they are walking to Jairus’ home, a large crowd begins to follow them. Perhaps they have heard what is going on, and they wish to offer prayers along with Jesus. But, on the other hand, maybe they are just following the crowd as so many do not know what is happening, regardless of why a large group follows Jesus.

Here the focus shifts a little. A woman, we do not know her name, only that she has had a blood issue for most of her life. This woman pushes her way through the crowd to only “touch the hem of his garment” that she might be healed. On the surface, this may seem like any other healing story but, if we drill down, we will see how extraordinary this scene is.

In the world that Jesus lived in, this woman would have been a social outcast. Her condition would have made her ritually unclean, and anyone she met would face the same fate. She would have been isolated from the rest of society to maintain the ritual purity that was required. Instead, she had come to a place in her life when she was willing to risk it all for a chance to be healed. Sure, her bleeding was a problem, but she has been isolated her entire adult life. She has no physical contact for years.

Many of us will have a better understanding of this isolation because of this last year. So many of us have been cut off from physical contact with others. We have been prevented from giving hugs to parents and grandchildren. Think about it; we experienced this isolation for a year; this woman isolated her entire adult life.

Mark tells us that she “pushes her way through the crowd” to get to Jesus. By “pushing her way,” she has come in contact with others and has made them ritually unclean. But she does not care. She has had enough and is willing to risk it all for a chance to be healed of her isolation. So great is her faith that all she feels she needs to do is touch his garment, and she will be made whole again.

She touched his garment and, scripture tells us she felt that her illness had left her that she had been healed. She tried to shrink away, but Jesus “felt power leaving” and asked who had touched him. I can almost see the faces of his disciples as he asked this question. How were they to know who touched him? The crowd was large and pushing and pulling as they walked. But Jesus knew, and the woman knew.

Mark tells us that she came forward and “threw herself at the feet of Jesus.” She was all in on this one. She had risked it all pushing through the crowd, and she still had more to risk. She threw herself down, begging to be healed. Jesus looks on her not as someone to be avoided, not as someone who is unclean and unfit to be in his presence. No, Jesus looks upon her and calls her daughter. Jesus looks past her illness to see that she is a blessed child of God. Jesus confirmed what she already knew, she had been healed, and Jesus tells her to “go in peace.”

Someone comes to tell Jairus that his daughter has died and that they are too late to do anything. Leaving the crowd behind, Jesus pressed on to the house. He arrived and found them all gathered around her bed weeping. He told them not to be sad, for she was only sleeping, and they laughed at him. But Jesus took her lifeless hand and said, “little girl get up,” and she rose. She was restored to health because of her father’s faith, who was willing to risk it all for his daughter.

I said at the start that this was not a miracle story but rather a story of faith, and it is, but it is also a story of risk. Both people in this story risked everything to approach Jesus. Their faith was so great that it drove them to forget about the danger of their actions. Instead, their faith moved them to do something extraordinary and outside of themselves.

What is your faith calling you to? What are we willing to risk making that calling a reality? These two had great faith, but scripture tells us that we can do amazing things even if we have faith the size of a mustard seed. So, push through the crowd, take the risk, for God is with us and will never leave.

Amen.

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.

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