A Sermon for Pentecost

23 05 2016

Preached at St. Luke’s Brownsville, MD.  Texts:  Genesis 11, Acts 2, John 14

It’s great to be back at St. Luke’s today!  Thank you so much for having me again and this time, I happen to be fortunate to bring guests with me as well!  After I visited here the first time, my schoolmates at Seminary asked me about your community, and one of the things I mentioned was how you and an African – American Baptist congregation were doing some great work with the less fortunate in the area.  I mean, that’s really living the Gospel!  Any time two very different communities come together to advance the Kingdom of Heaven, I have to think that must be God had in mind when he sent the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ disciples on this day almost 2,000 years ago.

Such a thing is all the more remarkable when you hear about how polarized our nation has become.  This self-separation into different affinity groups has been made quite easy by the Internet, for we can pick and choose what things we read and the people we listen to as never before.  We have reached the point there is at least one online community which shares your own individual opinion on just about anything!  What we don’t realize is that, over time, if all we read or hear is just what we want to read or hear, then it becomes all too easy to dismiss everything or everyone else.  Sadly, this tendency will also translate from online into real life.  It’s much easier to hang around people who share exactly the same points-of-view as we do, isn’t it?  And before you know it, the more and more we surround ourselves with these “right kind of people,” the more we push out everyone else.  And if we are not careful, we can start to become afraid of others because we have stopped trying to understand them.

Fear can play out in cultural contexts as well.  How many of us can think of things we did in our childhood that we wouldn’t begin to consider letting our own children do today?  Or when people from different cultures or speak different languages come in to the neighborhood, we might begin to feel a little tense as the world that we once knew is slipping away.  That makes us afraid too; and whether or not that fear is justified, it is something real and something to be addressed.  It is easy to be afraid of people who are different and pressure them into acting just like us so we will not feel uncomfortable. But, if we do that, we forget that all of us in all our differences and diversity are made in the image of God.

In the Old Testament, we read the story of the Tower of Babel.  The peoples of the earth migrated out to the east and decided they wanted to build a city and a tower with its top stretching to the heavens.  Usually this story is used as a lesson to watch out for our pride so as not to put ourselves above God, but if you read the text closely, the Problem of the People who built the tower of babel was not necessarily in pride or in actually building the tower.  It was why they built the tower.  They wanted to stay in one place and build walls around themselves so they wouldn’t be exposed to anything more than what they already knew. Genesis 11 says, “Come, let us build ourselves a city with a tower … otherwise we shall be scattered abroad across the face of the earth.”  They chose to trust in their own understanding instead of trusting God who wanted them to be fruitful and multiply across the earth.  So you see, the Problem of Babel could be read as a people giving into anxiety and fear and holding on tight as a world they once knew was slipping away.

Now mind you, there are times when fear is justified.  Our Gospel lesson for today comes from what is known as the Farewell Discourses of John.  Here, Jesus is sitting with his disciples giving them last words of instruction and encouragement before he is arrested and taken away to be crucified.  I would imagine that it was finally beginning to dawn on the disciples that Jesus really was about to be taken away from, and it is no wonder Jesus says to them, “Don’t be afraid!”  I mean, what do you do when you realize that your friend, your teacher is about to be handed over to the Romans like a common criminal?  What do we do in those times when we feel like that God is nowhere to be found and we feel abandoned?

But … there is Good News … Jesus says to us, there is always someone there to bring us comfort.

In the book of Acts, we read of an entire roll call of people from all across the globe who have come to Jerusalem for the feast of Shavuot, or Pentecost.  This is the giving back to God from the first fruits of our harvest, but more importantly, it marks when God gave the law to Moses at Sinai … and now, in the book of Acts, God brings us another gift.  While Jesus’ disciples were gathered together in a room, a sound like a mighty wind came and tongues like fire descended on people’s head.  The Holy Spirit came upon these people of God and they began to speak in other languages. Sometimes this story is called a reversal of the curse that came upon humanity at the Tower of Babel, but I would dare to say that’s not quite right.  At Babel, God caused people to speak in different languages partly because they chose to stay put and build walls and towers for themselves.  Now, if Pentecost were the reverse of Babel, people would find themselves speaking one language again, but that’s not what happened. At Pentecost, people find they are able to talk with people of different cultures and languages as if they were talking to someone they grew up with all their lives.  It would be like going to France or China, and you would find yourself able to hear and understand what people are saying without having learned the first word.  Instead of being driven apart, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit draws us together in mutual understanding.  The Good News of Pentecost is that our fallen humanity is being restored by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.  It is that same Spirit that moved over the face of the deep at Creation, the Spirit which caused Mary to become pregnant and bear the Son of God, and it is that Spirit who is now given to us.

Now some people in the book of Acts are not OK this development, for we read the group of disciples were accused of being drunk at 9am (which if we were living in my home of Key West, would be completely possible!).  But Peter steps in and says to the crowd, “No these people are not drunk.  This is the promise of God that was given long ago for as the prophet Joel says … “In the last days I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh … and  … everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved.”

At Pentecost, the Word of God is heard, the Spirit of God is given, and the community and communion which God desires for all of us is now made real.   The day the prophet Joel spoke of is here, and it has dawned in the person of Jesus, whose passion and love and Spirit creates friends and family where only strangers stood before.  The beauty of Pentecost is that by being united in Christ’s love we don’t have to all be the same living in gated communities and like islands unto ourselves.

Before he was crucified, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit will be the one to guide us into all truth and cause us to remember everything that Jesus said after he died.  And when Jesus rose from the dead and later ascended into heaven, he gave us that promise again.  When Jesus tells us the Holy Spirit will cause us to remember what Jesus did and said it is with the intention that in our remembering we will model our own lives and our own community to the way that Jesus lived and taught.  If you read your Bible, you will find that anytime God remembers someone or something, God ACTS.  He remembered his people in Egypt and sent Moses to lead them out of bondage and into the promised land.  God remembered Noah and brought him and his family to safety and gave the promise of the rainbow.

As God remembers his people, we are to remember Jesus … how he lived, what he taught and what he did … as we remember Jesus like God remembers His people, we are to reach out those who are hungry, those whom society says are unwanted or not good enough, those who are cold and those who might be lost, alone and afraid. To step outside of the gated communities and towers with walls that we have built for ourselves and go out into the world proclaiming and showing the world that there is a God who loves us and cares for us.   A God who wants us to realize that we all really do need each other after all.

It is no accident that we use the language of family to describe the fullness of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit … a divine community … a divine family.  The fullness of our humanity is made known when we work and act as if we all love and need each other, just as the fullness of God is known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  In Genesis, we read of how God created Eve alongside Adam because God saw that it was not good for us to be by ourselves.  We are created to live in community and communion with each other.  The Good News I have for you today is that when we are living as the people that God has called us to be, we can set the world on fire just as surely as the fire of the Holy Spirit came down from heaven on that day.

There is more than bravery and boldness that comes with the gift of the Holy Spirit … Jesus said to his disciples, “Peace I leave you … my peace I give to you.” Sometimes it seems as if there is a lot of reasons to be afraid in this sad, tragic world we live in.  It is no wonder that with all the wars and rumors of wars we long for peace.  Because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, we can know peace … and joy … and love.  Because of the Holy Spirit, we know of the peace of God as something more than a lack of fighting or war or hostility … the peace of God that passes all understanding which Jesus promised is the peace that comes when we trust that God is in control.  That God loves us.  We rest in the assurance that God knows us, each and every one.  And that God who knows us and loves us is always with us, and he will never let us out of the palm of his hand or leave us alone.

Here again the words of the Gospel … “If you love me, keep my commandments … and I will pray that the Father will send you another Comforter, who will abide with you forever.  Peace I leave with you.  My peace I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled; let them not be afraid.”


Jesus, Nicodemus and the Woman at the Well

6 04 2016

The following is a reflection on the Gospel of John, Chapters 3 and 4, shared with the Anglican Dominicans and members of All Souls Episcopal Church in Washington, DC on April 3, 2016, when I made Oblation promises to the Order.


When Sr Elena first told us that our homilies today would be drawn from the Gospel of John Chs. 3 and 4, there were admittedly equal parts joy as well as fear and trembling.  Joy, because I have been blessed to preach on these texts before, and fear and trembling because these were so familiar, what could I possibly have to say that would speak to a group of men and women who study the Bible and preach it as a central part of our vocation!

For one thing, in John 3 we find one of the first verses that we memorize during our years at Sunday School, it is a staple of themes that occur during Vacation Bible School, and often times it is used as a shorthand version of the Christian faith. We see it everywhere, on bumper stickers, T-shirts, and in recent years we have even seen it stenciled under the eyes of a certain football player.

If we look at John 4, we find the familiar story of Jesus meeting a woman at Jacob’s Well.  Jesus was tired and needed to rest, so his disciples went on ahead into town for food while he recovered from the journey.  We can surmise that this woman is fairly low on the social ladder in town, for people normally went out to draw the day’s water early in the morning, and it was also quite a social time to catch up with neighbors.  But no one would go out in the heat of the day.  Think about it.  Would you start a back breaking project around lunch time in August?  Of course not! For myself, when I lived in Key West, I was hard pressed to carry my laundry three blocks to the Laundromat at any other time except right when they opened at 7am!  So something must be going on for this woman to avoid the rest of town while she went to the well for the day’s water.

It is also appropriate here to do a very quick study in contrasts between Jesus meeting the woman at the well and Jesus meeting Nicodemus in Chapter 3.  Nicodemus was a man, a Pharisee, well respected, and part of the religious establishment.  He had it all going for him.  But when he came to talk to Jesus, he felt the need to do so under the cover of darkness so he wouldn’t be found out. He used flowery and flattering language to even butter Jesus up.  The woman, on the other hand, does not even have a name.  She was also a Samaritan and an outsider among her community of outcasts.  In short, she was a nobody.  Not fit for polite society.  Someone to be avoided.  When she goes to draw water at noon it is because the heat of the sun is easier to bear than the shame of her embarrassment.  But Jesus meets her.  He engages with her, and they have this wholly remarkable conversation.  It cannot be understated all the social conventions that just went out the window.  Not only was Jesus a Jew and the woman a Samaritan, but men and women simply did not speak to one another except within the context of family settings.  But as we have seen before, Jesus has no qualms about breaking all the usual rules.  Whereas Jesus brushes off Nicodemus’ questions and poo-poohs them as if to say, “You should know better than to ask questions like that!” he takes this woman seriously.  She MATTERS.

And as they talk, Jesus speaks to her of living water that comes from a well that never runs dry.  He names the source of her shame that she has had five husbands over the years and the man she is with now is not her husband at all.  She realizes there is more to this man than meets the eye and calls him a prophet.  Then they start to talk about God, and it is here where Jesus reveals himself, who he REALLY is by saying two of the words that God used to reveal to Moses exactly who he was and what kind of God He is: “I AM.”

The Gospel of John is famous for, among other things, several “I am” sayings that Jesus uses to describe who he is.  “I am the bread of life.” “I am the light of the world.”  “I am the resurrection and the life.”  It appears for the first time here in the most direct terms possible.  He doesn’t reveal himself to a learned man of polite society like Nicodemus.  He reveals himself as the Messiah, the Son of God, to someone polite society considers to be a nobody.  He reveals to her that he knows exactly why she is living on the margins of her community and still he accepts her.  He respects her.  He loves her, just as God so loved the world.

As for Nicodemus, Jesus patiently begins by comparing his mission to the story of Moses lifting up the bronze serpent in the wilderness so that the Israelites would not die when they were bitten by poisonous snakes. The serpents that assault us today are no less deadly for they come in the forms of our own vices and shortcomings. These serpents may not only be the internal things we struggle with, but plenty of outside forces which seem to hem us in on every turn from which there may be no escape. But, as Moses fashioned the bronze serpent to show to the Israelites in the wilderness, God sends his Son to be lifted up on the cross for the salvation of the entire human race and all of Creation.

“God so loved the world.”

If we look at the Greek, we know that when the Bible says “God so loved the world” the word that is used is agape, which is the term for God’s unconditional love.  Hebrew, like Greek, has several words for love, and one of those words is chesed, which is usually translated as “mercy” or “loving-kindness” or “covenantal loyalty,” but in context in which chesed is used, those don’t quite seem to do it justice.  In her book Mystical Hope, Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal Priest and Spiritual Director calls chesed God’s fierce, burning love.  It is an abiding love that is reserved to express the commitment and love that God has for his people.  It is not a mere feeling but an all-pervasive force like gravity.

For all of his power, his good works and compassion, at the end in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus relied and trusted on nothing but Gods’ chesed.  It is no accident that we say that his final words from the Cross are “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”  The Gospel of Matthew sums up Jesus’ own recognition of the need to rely on God alone and not his own power when he said, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”

But in his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus is also pointing to the resurrection where Jesus is lifted from the grave by the power and love of God, a love that is stronger than death itself. Because of our faith in what God has done in his Son, because we trust that God loves us, we inherit that promise, the gift of eternal life.  This is echoed in our Eucharist prayer when it is said “By his death, he has destroyed death, and by his rising to life again he has won for us everlasting life.”

As Anglican Dominicans, we commit ourselves to daily prayer, daily study of the Scriptures and proclamation through preaching.  At Seminary, I’m surrounded by some very smart people who are as every bit as brainy and Academic as we Dominicans have a reputation for being.  We can sit around and argue the finer points of doctrine and the underlying meaning behind every smallest act of liturgy. Sometimes we seminarians need reminding at the end of all our study, at the end of all of our book knowledge and learning ultimately stands Jesus.  At the end of the day, all we can do is fall on God’s chesed and agape, his fierce abiding burning love for us just as Jesus did in Gethsemane … and that will be what carries us through.  It is because of the life changing power of the love of God that we can say that we no longer live just for ourselves, but for him, in him and through him who died and rose again.

Every time I get bogged down in trying to answer these questions, I recall a Charlie Brown comic strip where Peppermint Patty and Marcy are discussing about how a faucet works. Marci goes into the basics of plumbing and water pressure. Peppermint Patty looks thoughtfully at the faucet with the running water and says to her friend, “I don’t care how it works. I’m just glad it works.” And it works because God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. It works because Jesus meets the woman and the well and offers her living water which cools her shame when society tells her she is a nobody and quenches the deepest thirst for community and communion with God.  It’s like that old Southern Gospel Song with the Chorus that says “I cannot tell you how, and I cannot tell you why, but He’ll tell us all about it in the by and by.”


Feast of St Peter and St Paul

28 06 2015

John 21:  15-19

If there is one thing that strikes fear and trembling into more than a few Episcopalians it is the prospect of talking about “Evangelism.” This week I came across the story of a lady who was working at a bookstore, and as she was opening up, a Hasidic Jew came into the store in full attire: hat, dark suit, white shirt, full beard and ringlets coming down from his head. She asked if there was anything specific he was looking for, and he replied that he wanted to learn about Jesus. Dutifully, the lady pointed out the Spiritual and Religious section of the bookstore and rattled off a few titles she personally enjoyed. Imagine her surprise when the man said, “no, no! I want to know what you think about him. You tell me what you believe about Jesus.” Than woman later said, “My Episcopalian soul shivered” not even knowing where to begin.

Today we remember the martyrdom of who we consider to be two of the greatest apostles and evangelists in the history of the Church: St Peter and St Paul. St Peter and St Paul, as you know are also our patron saints, and it’s a special point of pride to be here among you, the first Episcopal congregation in all of Florida and the first African American congregation, and I was reflecting on how special it is to have to a chance to speak to everyone at once before I head off to seminary in 33 days…but who’s counting? I give thanks to St. Peters for all their support, their sponsorship and love over the past five years and St. Paul’s has already established a place of affection in my heart in the short amount of time I have been with you. I have to tell you it always does the heart good to see us gathered together as one Episcopal community and something that we don’t do enough. It reminds me of a song that we used to sing in Bible School which went, “The Church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is the people. I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together.” Our histories are long and noble. It is quite appropriate that St Peter and Paul are our patron saints, as St Paul carried the gospel to the ends of the Roman Empire just as St Paul’s congregation was established at the farthest reach of the country. St Peter was called to be a fisher of men and he also focused his ministry on the community in Jerusalem, just as St. Peter’s congregation has deep roots in the Bahama Village Community.

Speaking of fishing, over the years I’ve heard people joke that tourists think our lives here in Key West revolve around fishing all day and we feast on shrimp and lobster every night, and every time someone talks about giving up their lives on the mainland and joining us here, there are plenty of times when we just listen politely and smile knowingly because life is not exactly a fishing trip, is it? Human life, especially life here in paradise can be difficult and messy, full of pitfalls and stumbles, and that brings us to the scene with Peter and Jesus in the Gospel of John.

I must confess that Peter’s one of my favorite characters in the Bible. He’s headstrong, brash, not at all subtle, but he’s got passion for what he does and for all of his faults, he just absolutely without any question loves Jesus. Today’s Gospel lesson shows Peter and Jesus talking with each other after Jesus rose from the dead. Earlier in this chapter we read that Peter led the disciples on a fishing trip. When they saw Jesus on the shore and recognized him for who he was, they stopped what they were doing and joined him for a breakfast of fish and bread. And here, Peter and Jesus deal with some unfinished business. We know from the story of Jesus’ crucifixion that Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. For all his professed love of Christ, when it came down to the wire and his teacher, his friend needed him the most, Peter’s fears got the better of him and he hid in the darkness. When Jesus rose from the dead and showed himself to the disciples, up to this point Jesus makes no mention of the betrayal. Based on how Jesus acts towards the disciples after the resurrection, I believe it is safe to say that he had already forgiven Peter for what he did, and even forgave him before it happened, but doesn’t do anything to remove the shame and remorse Peter felt at betraying the one he left everything to follow.

Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” and each time Peter responds, “Yes Lord you know I love you,” to which Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep.” This scene is shown as Peter’s restoration, or sometimes as his commissioning as chief among the apostles. Other times Jesus’ question is seen as testing Peter’s level of commitment and his conviction that he’s doing and saying what he means. The question “Do you love me” echoes back to the farewell discourses earlier in the Gospel of John where Jesus gives his disciples the commandment to love one another as he loves them, a love that meant a willingness and readiness to die for them. For Peter, that means being willing to go to places he does not want to go, a way that tradition says ended in a violent death as he, too, was crucified. Love, it seems, offers no security.

When St. Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus and began to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, he also had to be willing to pay a price for his commitment. Paul was the epitome of the privileged man in society. He was a Pharisee, was most likely rather well off, and he was citizen of the Empire. But when he met Jesus, he gave it all up. He found himself making tents in order to make ends meet while being constantly on the road. And at the end of all of his, he was imprisoned and later executed.

What price are we willing to pay for the sake of the Gospel? Jesus says time and time again to consider the cost, take up your cross and to follow him. This week the General Convention of the Episcopal Church is meeting in Salt Lake City. In the forefront of everyone’s mind is how we can be the church in 21st century when old ways of doing things no longer work. A great source of anxiety is that no matter what we seem to do, our numbers continue to dwindle. We especially feel that here in the summer when the ones that line the pews are “just us” and the visitors are few and far between. We say we want the church to grow and more people to come, we say we want children in Sunday School and great music programs, but what often goes left unsaid is that we absolutely want those people, but we want more people “just like us.” We want “the right kind of people,” which is not the model that Jesus offers. Sometimes we become more like Pharisees than we want to admit, dispensing law and not grace. Too often we we hold people to a standard which is more like an entrance exam for respectability than as a goal to work towards that is only obtained through discipleship. Jeffrey Johns, Dean of the St Albans Cathedral in England says, “The Church is not a sanctuary for the perfected – or even those who imagine themselves to be perfected. It is a free hospital for the wounded and joyful sinners who are in the process of being healed.”

Where is the Good News is all this talk of costs and the price of following Jesus? Jesus is talking about offering us something that we cannot live without.  He is not only laying out the best offer in town for eternal life, joy, hope but he’s also got the only offer that will work. He has got the real deal, but … it’s going to set you back a bundle with no change given back.  After all, it cost Jesus everything and it will cost us, too.  All of that life, joy and hope he offers is free but it doesn’t come cheaply.  It is absolutely terrible, unreasonable and scandalous that in order to gain all of this we have to be willing to lose it all and give up everything we thought we might have ever wanted.

It’s very easy for me or any preacher to stand here in the pulpit and talk about counting the cost and sacrifice, but I can tell you it is a topic where I do have some experience.  I know what it’s like to uproot yourself from a comfortable living and leave friends behind, to lose a home, a job, a retirement account, a friend, and I know what it’s like to have a relationship end because I happen to take being here on Sunday morning rather seriously. I even must confess that when the opportunity arose to come to Key West five years ago I resisted, thinking the cost was too high. And as it turns out, the cost was high. But it was worth every penny. Throughout everything, I can tell you that there is absolutely no where else that this very flawed disciple of Jesus would rather be than putting one foot in front of the other and following where he might lead. When it seems like we have lost it all or have given up so much, then that is the perfect time for the Holy Spirit to step in and open up a way for us.

Earlier I mentioned the part of the story that came before today’s Gospel reading. I would be selling that story short if I didn’t mention the miracle that took place before breakfast. The disciples have just spent the night on the Sea of Galilee trying to catch fish, but in the morning they find they have nothing to show for it. The nets are empty. When Jesus calls to them and asks if they were successful during the night, their reply was a disappointed “no.” But then Jesus says, “Try it my way.  Cast your nets to the other side and see what happens.” And wonder of wonders, they have the most amazing catch of fish, enough to feed themselves several times over.

Many biblical scholars and preachers point to how miracles, especially healing miracles show how Jesus reaches out to those outside the community, those who otherwise would be left out and no one wants anything to do with. This miracle shows that the net when cast as Jesus directs is strong enough and wide enough that it catches everything and everybody. We all get caught up in the reach of God’s saving embrace when we do things God’s way. The abundance of generosity of God’s grace does not belong to the past, but to the present.  How often we lament how wonderful things used to be when we were children, when the church pews were full several times over on Sunday mornings, when we first fell in love, or even how great things were even two or three years ago; but we must never forget the blessings of the past are only foreshadows of the promises of the future.

Stories of commissioning, of repentance, of coming to faith in Christ is not a one-time event. It is something we carry with us today; it is a part of who we are as People of God; and we are reminded of that when we least expect it. It is a reminder that no matter how hard they try to make things work or to make ends meet, the disciples cannot do anything on their own without the help of Jesus. When we cast the net that God has given us in the form of these buildings, our manner of worship and our commitment to the community, we will find that our net is full to bursting of all the types of fish we can catch.

Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. It is a reversal and restoration of all the damage that has been done, not just in the denial of Christ, but the in how much we hurt each other, ourselves, our city.  It shows how the Grace and Forgiveness of God is so much more powerful than anything we can ever do.  Notice that Jesus doesn’t ask Peter if he was sorry for what he did, even if he felt bad for what he did or understood what he did.  Jesus asked Peter if he loved him; and at the end of all of our struggles, the end of all of our history; that is what matters. 

Our story shows that God is willing to entrust ministry and the Gospel message to a group of people whose lives are marked by impetuousness, denial, betrayal, vanity and doubt. It shows that God can call, feed and empower all sorts and conditions of people to do the work of the Kingdom. It shows that God’s word is resilient, vibrant, alive! Event though we may want our paths planned out for us, sometimes we just have to accept that we don’t know where God is going to take us. In our darkest moments, in our hunger, in our failures, in our poverty and in our desperation just to hang on, we can recall to mind that at the beginning of the story in the Gospel of John, we read that the “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.” Dear People of God, the Good News I have for you today is that if we trust God. If we live and act like we trust God and love Jesus we are absolutely get to where God is next going to call us to be.

I am the church …. you are the church … we are the church … together.


Healing and Resurrection

28 06 2015

Mark 5: 21 – 43

Jesus said, “Do not fear. Only believe.”

Earlier this week, I came across two stories. The first one had to do with a man who, along with his wife, were fairly devout Christians and solid members of their church. The man had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which as you may be aware, causes the body to degenerate over a long period of time. Regardless of how great a doctor’s bedside manner happens to be, words cannot begin to describe the fear and anxiety that grips the heart and soul when someone receives news of having a terminal disease, and this couple was no different. Because of their faith, from the moment of his diagnosis, he and wife began praying for healing. Unfortunately, the man eventually died. However, when he was talking to a friend during the last years of his time in this life, he made a remarkable statement. “You know, I actually have been healed and delivered, but not in the way I prayed for. I have been set free from the fear and anxiety over Parkinson’s disease and from death itself.” The second one takes place in the 1980’s and is set in Romania. The Communist regime at the time set up orphanages where the children who lived there were cut off from the rest of society and lived in isolation. They received no love and in some cases no touch at all. When the iron curtain fell and the dictator’s abhorrent social policies were laid bare for all the world to see, it was discovered that in many cases, those who grew up in those conditions were physically human, but were missing part of their humanity. They could not speak, they could not relate to others and did not have the capacity to give or receive affection.

Today’s lesson gives us two accounts of healing miracles from the Gospel of Mark. Earlier in Mark, Jesus calmed a storm and delivered a man from affliction by a demon. Jesus has preached and taught in synagogues, has performed signs and wonders to herald the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God into the world. His reputation has proceeded him, so where ever he and his band of disciples go, they attracted a crowd, and this time is no different. On this occasion comes a man named Jairus, who one of the leaders of the synagogue, who was held in high regard by the community. His daughter has taken ill and is near to the point of death, and Jairus comes to Jesus and begs him to heal her. It was considered highly unusual for something like this to happen because Jairus was so well-regarded. Someone of such high regard might send a servant or family member to fetch Jesus, but Jairus publicly humbles himself and falls on his face for the sake of his daughter. He publicly confesses that he believes that Jesus has it within his power to make his daughter well, and Jesus agrees to go with him.

So the action picks up as Jairus leads Jesus, the disciples, and oh yes, the ever-present crowd on the way to his house. Along the way we are introduced to a woman who had been bleeding for a dozen years. No one, no doctor and no amount of prayer had been able to help her in all this time. What was worse, a woman during the bleeding part of the menstrual cycle was considered unclean, and would ritually defile anyone she came into contact with. But because the bleeding did not stop, she was outcast from the community. Everyone avoided her so that they would not become contaminated. The right and proper thing for her to do would be to call out to Jesus from a distance in the hopes he would pay attention, or get someone to intercede on her behalf. But in equal parts grit, determination and desperation, she sneaks up to Jesus, believing that if she just touches the hem of his garment, she will be made well. She, too, has confessed her faith in Jesus, but in a private manner. In many ways she is the opposite of Jairus as she is impure, absolutely vulnerable and certainly neither right nor proper. When she touches his clothes, the most remarkable thing happens. We are told that Jesus sensed that his power had gone out him as a result of this act, Jesus stops in his tracks and he asks, “Who touched me?” The disciples are naturally perplexed probably looked at Jesus as if he had two heads. “How can you say that?” they asked. “The entire town is pressed in around us as we go to Jairus’ house. No offense, Lord, but a better question might be, ‘who hasn’t touched you?’”

Jesus stopped and asked, “Who touched me?”

It is important to note that the woman was healed because she dared to approach Jesus and have the faith to reach out and touch him. Her body had been made whole, but the miracle of healing does not stop there. In reaction to this act of faith, Jesus does not just continue on but he seeks her out. The entire story STOPS just as Jesus himself STOPS when he knows that some divine power flowed out of him. The story will not move forward … until Jesus finds the one who was looking for him and he gets to know her.

Before Jesus’ attends to Jairus’ daughter, he attends to one outcast from society. Here we see that the needs of the vulnerable and the marginalized are addressed before before the needs of the respected and the powerful. Here we see that those who are on the fringes of society also have a rightful place in direct relationship with Jesus. Jesus is not bound by the law which forbids him from touching the woman, but he responds to her faith just as he responds to Jairus’ faith. But only does he accept the woman, he embraces her by calling her “daughter.” He calls her a child of God and breaks through her isolation from the community. The power that Jesus offers is not only that which cures physical ailments, but it brings wholeness and peace. It is a flash of intimacy which gives to her something that is very precious … a healing of the entire person: body and spirit.

The rest of the story resumes at its former pace as Jesus is led to Jairus’ house only to find that his daughter has died. Once again, Jesus ignores social convention and asks to be shown the body. Bringing with him only Peter, James and John, and the parents, Jesus touches the girl, takes her by the hand and tells her to get up. And she does. Stories of resurrection in the Bible are not new. A similar scene is found in the Old Testament where Elijah prays to God to bring back to life the son of the Widow of Zarephath. Here Jesus’ demonstrates his authority over death itself and instead of praying, directly tells her to get up.

Both of these stories have happy endings, but we all know too well that life is not like that at all. We are sad-fully, painfully aware that some of our most earnest prayers are not answered the way in which they are asked. It is very easy for me to stand up here and talk to you about miracles of healing and resurrection, but the reality is death and illness visits our community every day. Our cries and prayers are no less desperate than those of the woman and of Jairus. In this past week, one member of the community lost his father. And just one week ago, a mother and her two children died in a fire on Ramrod Key and the surviving sibling was taken to Miami for treatment.

The loss of a loved one is always tragic. In our grief and despair it is far too easy to isolate ourselves from those we love and who love us to the point where that same grief and despair begins to consume us. Cut off from our community, we may begin a cycle of self-destructive behaviour and we give in to our own despair, anxiety, and fear. We lose part of what makes us human, just like the children in Romania.

The Scottish Philosopher John McMurray once said, “I need you in order to be myself.” Someone who is enthralled to an addiction finds that they cannot even begin to get better and to recover until they are willing to step outside of themselves and accept the welcoming touch and the relationship of others. While their bodies have been changed to the point that they can no longer ingest those substances without quickly returning to a living death, they experience healing through a spiritual program and constant contact with each other so that they are no longer enthralled to cravings and hunger for what was killing them.

Life happens to us all, and it is only a matter of time before life comes knocking on our door. None of us go through this life without the experience of loss, and for myself, I know what it is like to lose almost everything: a job, retirement account, financial security, and even close friends. Sometimes, we may like awake at 3 in the morning not knowing what the next day will bring or how we can even begin to face it. We may say, “I can’t pay my mortgage, I can’t make my rent, I feel so alone and cold and afraid and sometimes I just feel as dead as a corpse.” But to this Jesus says, “Do not be afraid. Only believe.”

I am reminded of the a man who came to Jesus asking for his boy to be healed and all he could do was to cry out, “Lord I believe … help my unbelief!” which I have to think is the greatest declaration of genuine faith in all of Scripture. Faith … even a flawed, imperfect faith … is an integral part to healing and wholeness. When we cry out to Jesus and we reach out for him, even if our faith in him is imperfect, he stops, he comes looking for us and never ceases to search until he finds us and breaks through our isolation, our disease, our insanity and our uncertainty. We receive healing in the form of an awareness of the continuing and comforting presence of God … even when it seems all is lost. When we cling to the One who restores us and cast our every care upon him, he meets us right where we are in our sickness, our doubts, our despair and we are transformed by his love and grace and mercy from brokenness into wholeness.

The Good News I have for you today is that because of Jesus, while Disease and Death will remain with us, they are no longer the final answer. The Good News I have for you today is that if you read your Bible, you will find that every time Jesus meets someone who is dead, that dead person gets up and walks.

Lenten Surrender

22 02 2015

Mark 1

There is something about the Season of Lent which brings out the curious in non-believers.  I have a friend who wishes me a “Happy Ash Wednesday” every year and still another who never ceases to ask what I’m giving up, or “what are you doing for Lent?”  Over the past decade or so, it has become in vogue to add something to your routine or what we have come to call “taking something on”  as if somehow adding something to your routine may somehow be more fun for us than trying to observe a time of sacrifice and self-denial such as giving up smoking or forgoing that glass of wine at dinner.  This year, when I was asked what I was either giving up or taking on, I was quite happy to reply, “I am giving up my second job for a few weeks”

Many of us talk about giving up something we enjoy or taking on another project or making it a point to do extra acts of service and kindness.  Others mark the season as a period of reflection and set aside extra time for meditation. These practices are meant to help focus us on getting ready for Holy Week and and the joy that comes with Easter.  They are all right, good and joyful things … always and everywhere.  But there is another aspect to our Lenten disciplines, which are sometimes shown in a subtle way and sometimes they are obvious …. And that is the aspect of surrender.

We have just ended the season of Epiphany, a season where we celebrate the signs and wonders of Jesus’ ministry. Over the past few weeks, we heard stories about Jesus’ baptism, the casting out of a demon, and the calling of the first disciples. Last, we were treated to a true mountaintop experience at the Transfiguration, where Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah, the personification of the Old Testament Law and the Prophets. But like all mountaintop experiences, they must eventually end and we must leave that mountain and descend into the valley. After the highs of Epiphany, we are now called to a sojourn into the valley of Lent.

The First Sunday in Lent is typically reserved for a look at the temptation of Jesus.  Today’s Gospel says he was driven, into the wilderness for 40 days so that he will be prepared and equipped for his ministry. The wilderness is often seen as a setting for a period of testing, or used to describe a difficult time our in spiritual lives. God sent his people, the Israelites, into the wilderness for 40 years to wander with only the presence of a cloud or pillar of fire to guide them. Noah was on the ark in the wilderness of the floodwaters for 40 days until he was brought to rest on the shores of a mountain.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke describe and in a fair amount of detail the verbal sparring match Jesus has with the devil.  But here, in the Gospel of Mark, we have only a mention.  “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.”  If we didn’t have the other books, we would have no idea what transpired.  The focus of this passage is not so much Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness, but on his baptism and giving us a preview of the core message of his ministry:  “The Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the Good News.”

Jesus’ baptism presents us with a puzzle.  We say that Jesus was sinless and blameless, but he goes through this act of repentance. Why, then, does he do this?  By requesting to be baptized, Jesus demonstrates that even though he may not need to repent of anything, he does so as a sign of surrender to the will of God.  In fact, the entire passage here:  his baptism, his time in the wilderness, his temptation, even his encounters with wild beasts and angels show us that God is moving in a way he has not done before.  He is showing that the old system of the world is no longer valid, and a new way of living is being ushered in.  In the time when the Gospel of Mark was written, people would immediately connect the time of 40 days in the wilderness to the story of Moses leading his people to the promised land after they wandered 40 years in the wilderness.  In the Bible, the wilderness represents a place of testing, of self-examination, of turning away from the things of this world and focusing on the things of God.  It is a crucible where the people of God are changed and transformed into vessels that God can use for his glory and to advance this Kingdom that we hear so much about.  It is a place of surrender.

When Jesus meets the devil in the wilderness, the devil tries to get Jesus to use his immense power to tend to his own needs by turning stones to bread, and to show that he is God’s favoured by throwing himself off a cliff knowing that he will not be harmed.  Each time the devil tries to get Jesus to show himself as a type of Superman, but each time Jesus refuses.  When does use his power, it is always for the benefit of others.  He heals the sick, he raises the dead, he casts out demons, he feeds a crowd.  He surrenders the use of his own gifts and talents for his own benefit, and uses it to strengthen and edify the people of God.

Israel’s journey in the wilderness was marked by trials and tribulations at every turn, and it was also marked by sin and rebellion and even a plea to Moses to return them to Egypt and to slavery.  Jesus’ time in the wilderness re-writes that history by not succumbing to the temptations the devil throws at him and trusting in God’s grace, God’s love and God’s provision.  Even before he begins his public ministry, Jesus is about making all the old things new.  The coming of Christ is the fulfillment of the Law, where all the old obligations of temple sacrifice … the obligations to Herod and to Rome … the obligations which keep us under the yoke of the powers of this world … are done away with.

When God calls us into the wilderness, it may be that he is shaping us for what is to come.  We are invited to take this time as we journey to Jerusalem and to the Cross as a way of looking beyond ourselves and using our gifts and talents for the benefits of others, just as Jesus always insisted on using his power for those who are in need.

Being in the wilderness is tough.  It is easy get there and easy to find ourselves inside of it, but it is not so easy to get out.   Israel was encouraged to trust God to guide them through and they resisted at every turn, even going so far as to say they can find their own way out of the wilderness, thank you very much.  Like them, it is very easy for us to think that we know what’s best instead of listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to guide us through.  We may be tempted to go our own way and do our own thing, just like the devil tempted Jesus.  I said before that the wilderness is where God meets us and changes us …and change can be uncomfortable at best or even frightening at worst.  That fear can cause us to act in ways we normally would not.

I recall an article from the New York Times I read some years ago which began, “Pam Stout did not always live in fear” and then went to talk about how she was afraid the country she grew up in was nothing like the one she lives in today, so she tried to change the way things were going.  Pam’s zeal for change is not motivated not by love or a desire for justice, but by fear and anxiety. When we give into those forces, or to our own most base desires, we start to lose touch with the gifts that God has given us …. our talents, our skills and even in extreme instances, our friends or loved ones.  It is difficult to not take matters into our own hands as the devil tempted Jesus to do.  The Good News I have for you today is that the devil failed  … and because of the cross the devil stands defeated and remains defeated.  The devil stands and remains defeated because Jesus surrendered to the call into the wilderness and trusted the Father to see him through.

When bad things happen, or when calamity strikes, a question we may ask is, “Where is God?” The answer is, “Well, He’s right here, of course! He hasn’t gone anywhere!” A better question though might be, in what way is God here NOW and how or when will we know that He’s hanging about with us.

Instead of insisting on doing our own thing, when we turn our gifts and talents over to God and surrender to doing God’s will, we find that ordinary people like you and me can do the most extraordinary things.  In this act of surrender, in this act of “no longer living for ourselves but for Him who died and rose again,” we will find that God’s power “working through us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”

God doesn’t promise our journey through the Valley of Lent will comfortable.  God doesn’t promise it will be easy.  In fact, there may be plenty of times when we just want to give up and go back to Egypt and the comfort of a life that we know instead of a life that we don’t, even if the life we know is a life of slavery and bondage.  But if we trust God … if we live and act like we trust God … God does promise he will see us through the wilderness … through the valley of Lent … to the foot of the Cross … and out the other side to the empty tomb.