Community and Abundant Life

13 05 2014

sheepfollowing

In the Name of the True and Living God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of our mothers and grandmothers that are here!  I would also like to extend a warm welcome to aunts, great-aunts, great-grandmothers and even cousins or anyone else who has had the privilege and honor of helping to raise a child…to protect, nurture and to guide even when we are well within our way into adulthood.  All of us who have participated in this process know that none of this happens on our own, but in the context of a community.  Even if you are not a mother yourself, today we give thanks to what you have brought to the next generation of those who are coming up.  It is quite appropriate that this year Mother’s Day also falls on what many churches call “Good Shepherd Sunday,” from which we take from the theme of our lessons today.

One of the iconic images of Jesus and one of the names for himself is “The Good Shepherd,” a powerful symbol for the people of Israel. After all, King David began his life as a shepherd so this image had a strong resonance during the day. Sheep in those days were quite valuable since they not only provided food but wool for clothing, so anyone who looked after them had to be on constant vigilance for thieves and bandits. When they were not roaming in the pasture, they were kept rather large pen surrounded by a stone wall with only one gate for them to go in or out. Usually that warranted hiring a gatekeeper to watch them at night. During the day, the shepherd would lead them out of them pen so they could graze, calling to them to keep them together so they don’t go astray, and often he would know them so well he knew them all by name or by their quirks or eccentricities or by their distinguishing marks. Believe it or not, shepherds in the Middle East by and large follow this same practice. To get an idea of what this is like here in Key West, watch a mother chicken with her babies as they wander the streets.

Today’s lesson is the first part of a longer passage where Jesus talks about his particular relationship to the people of God. We are all familiar with some of the lines which are not mentioned here like, “I am the Good Shepherd, and I lay down my life for the sheep. My sheep hear my voice, I know them and they follow me.” But before he gets into all of that, he says something rather interesting: “I am the gate.” Now before we try and sort out what he could be talking about, we need to look at what’s happening on either side of the lesson so we can understand where Jesus is coming from. This is a small part of could be called a three act play, something which happens fairly regularly in the Gospel of John. In Chapter 9, we have a miracle – the healing of blind man, that’s Act I. Act II is the controversy that comes out it, which is when the religious leaders of the day are trying to figure out how this all happened and Jesus basically tells them that they are the ones who are blind to the coming of the Kingdom of God. And then we come to Act III, where Jesus attempts to grant sight to their blindness and to shine a light for those who are still stumbling around in the dark. In all honesty, if we wanted to we could be here all day trying to untangle the knots of what he is saying!  However, if we don’t know the backstory, or we heard the discourse on the Good Shepherd without any knowledge of what the context, we would certainly be as confused as the Pharisees. Is he a shepherd? Is he the gatekeeper? Is the gate itself? You may as well ask him, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

When Jesus talks of himself as the gate, it raises some rather interesting questions, some big and grand like “What is the nature of salvation?” or “Is the work of Jesus exclusive?” or even, “What about other teachers and other shepherds?” You cannot begin to answer these questions without taking into consideration that the point of the entire Gospel of John is to show and tell how Jesus is the embodiment, the enfleshment of God. Those of you who have heard me speak know that one thing I am fond of saying is that the story of our faith is not how we went off to look to search for God, but God came in the flesh, found us and called us to be his own. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

With that in mind, the key to unlocking not only this lesson, however, but the entire discourse I think lies in the sentence, “I have come that they may have abundant life and to have it abundantly.” Jesus as the Good Shepherd knows each one of us personally and by name. He ensures the safety of his flock, and he is also the gate by which the flock enters and becomes members of the family of God. When he speaks of other shepherds he is warning us about the dangers of not hearing and focusing on his voice. During this particular time in which Jesus lived, there was no shortage of those claiming to be the Messiah or other revolutionary leaders to lead people against the Romans. And today there are no shortage of people on the TV or the internet who claim to give us all the answers to success and safety and spiritual peace and well-being all for the price of a DVD or a book plus shipping and handling. These other shepherds seek to lead members of the flock astray into danger and disaster, but Jesus … is offering abundant life as only God is able to do.

 

Without understanding the concept of the gift of abundant life, we would quickly become as confused as Nicodemus when he was asking how he could re-enter a mother’s womb so he could be “born again” or “born from above.” At that point, we miss what it actually means to be a part of Jesus’ flock which is perfectly expressed in the Psalm.

 

“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.”

“There are green pastures, still waters, and it is the presence of the shepherd, the presence of Jesus, which makes all of this possible.”

“Yes there is danger, yes people will come to divide us, yes there are thieves and bandits … but even in the valley of the shadow of death there is no need to be afraid for God is with us.”

It is also tremendously important that we remember that while life is given to us individually, it is also given to us and meant to be expressed as a community. As Americans, we take great pride in our individualism but Jesus reminds us that we are not a flock of one. We are called to be a community in which we actively participate to serve each others common good, building strong relationships with each other, and most importantly, to foster a deep abiding trust that the Shepherd is looking out for us even if we are tempted to walk away. To make his point clear, later in this passage Jesus says, “No one can snatch them out of my hand. No one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”

Community is a very important idea in the Gospel of John, and in the early church. In the book of Acts we read that they certainly had their own set of problems, but also that they all stuck together and worked together for each others well-being. The Gospel of John later talks about how we are all branches that live together on the vine that is our source, Jesus. And at the end, we read a miraculous catch of fish which are bound together in a net when they were just basically doing their own thing. And that net doesn’t break.

“No one can take them out of my hand.”

 

Jesus as the Good Shepherd shows us a God who isn’t willing to remain distant from us. He comes to us. He keeps us safe and guides us and shelters us even when there seems to be danger on every turn. He call us his own and knows every one of our names and who we are as part of his flock.   It is a call to solidarity, to sacrifice, and to abundant eternal life.  Our focus as a community is to stick together and to make sure we are listening out for his voice so we know where he is calling us to next.  Under the care of the Good Shepherd, we can rest assured we are loved … we are protected … and no matter what else happens … we belong to him.

 

Amen.

 

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A Word from the Cross

19 04 2014

Second Word: Today you are with me in paradise.

Before we go too much deeper into these three hours it would serve us well to wrap our minds around just how horrific a crucifixion was. It was an execution that not only was extreme torture on the body, but also on the mind, soul and spirit. It was reserved only for the dregs of humanity, the bad elements of society that were even fit to be called human. Throughout his life, Jesus aligned himself with these bad elements and in death it is no different. Indeed, even as he prayed right up until his arrest “Father let this cup pass from me” in the end he willingly entered into this particularly gruesome form of death. As for the two on either side of him, all four Gospels want us to know about these criminals with whom Jesus spent his last hours. Jesus did not die among the religious establishment, the well-connected, the pillars of the community. We commonly call these two men thieves, but that word doesn’t do it justice. They were bandits: men of violence, ready to kill just as quickly as they were willing to steal. You could even go so far as to say they were domestic terrorists. Crucifixion took place outside the city walls, which you may recall is where they consigned the lepers, and kept away from the eyes of good and decent people.

Entering into Good Friday, then is an invitation to go where good and decent people never go.

It is also important to remember the effect the crucifixion had on the ones who followed Jesus. This is was the one they pinned all of their hopes on. He spoke of the Kingdom of God where there was good news for the poor, liberty for the captives and the oppressed. He made the blind to see and the lame to walk. He denounced the religious establishment for the hypocrites they were and confounded him at every turn.

This is the one upon whom they pinned all of their hopes and their faith and now he is here. This is NOT how things are supposed to be. But in the end The Empire and the powers of this world struck back to put an end to this mans rabble-rousing once and for all. Today, at least, the Empire has won.

It is an altogether strange and even unacceptable idea that the Messiah, a Saviour, the Son of God is crucified. I mean, what kind of a Redeemer winds up on a cross? But here we are. Today the world seems disjointed. Today the world seems wrong. For all of us that wear crosses on our necklaces and rings and sometimes even our T shirts we have to admit we don’t like Good Friday.

The Gospel of Luke invites us into a deeper part of the story. He really wants us to know more about these two criminals. One taunts Jesus and says “if you are the Messiah save yourself! And by the way save us too while you’re at it.” He’s still looking for a hero on a white horse to come and make everything right. But that Messiah is not coming today. The other man sees something else. Even in his tormented state with a sign hanging over Jesus head that mockingly says “This is the King of the Jews” he saw something no one else did. Something moved him to say “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

No one wants to be forgotten. Everyone wants to think that in some way their life matters. People of means will give huge donations so that their names will be inscribed on a library or a theater and others will have a scholarship or a building named after them. Many of us will leave detailed instructions for our funerals and burials to make the way we want to be remembered long after we are gone.

If we are honest with ourselves we seek desperately to be remembered in a certain way because we fear we are nothing. We fear we are nobodies. We want to know that what we do has value, that WE have value and our life has not been a waste. This thief, however asks with confidence to be remembered by Jesus because when Jesus remembers us, it’s different. Any time God remembers it does not mean that he is “recalling to mind” or “thinking about” something or someone. In the Bible, when God remembers, God ACTS and he acts on behalf of his people. This man recognizes Jesus kingship and gets a flash of insight as to what it means when Jesus says “My kingdom is not of this world.” The source of Jesus power as Redeemer of the world lies in this supreme self-sacrifice of love. His power is only made known in his death.

This is why we can trust that God remembers is, even when it seems we have lost everything and everyone, when it feels like every day is Good Friday and Holy Saturday and Easter will never come. No matter who we are or what we have done, or whether or not we thinks our lives have been wasted. We can trust there is a Redeemer whose love for us is stronger than death itself. By Jesus’ death, he has destroyed death.

We are heard and we are remembered.

When Jesus remembers is, he is claiming us as his own and we are pulled into the life of God by a love made visible on a cross. And being a part of that life is what it means to know paradise.

This is why we can sing with certainty our previous hymn “Beneath the Cross of Jesus I Cain would take my stand … My sinful self my only shame, my glory all the Cross”

And that is why we call this Friday “Good.”





The Woman at the Well Meets the Water of Life

25 03 2014

Text:  John 4

Water, as we know, if something no living creature can do without.  Plants will soon wither and die if they don’t get it.  Our pets may eat only once or twice a day, but they constantly need fresh water, especially on hot days.  For humans, if we were left alone on a desert island, we would die of dehydration long before we would starve.

Water means life.  Scarcity of water means difficult times are ahead.  While the East Coast and the Midwest have seen the most snowfall in recent memory, an under-reported fact is that drought conditions in California has persisted for so long, the cost of many of our fruits and vegetable will rise because the harvest was not nearly as plentiful as in years past.  Water is something we take for granted until it is suddenly not abundant.

woman at wellOur Gospel reading this morning tells a familiar story of Jesus meeting a woman at Jacob’s Well near Sychar, a town in the region of Samaria.  Jesus was tired and needed to rest, so his disciples went on ahead into town for food while he recovered from the journey.  Around noon, a woman comes up to draw water, and Jesus says to her, “Give me something to drink.”  She is shocked, to say the least.  You can almost imagine her looking around, thinking surely he must be speaking to someone else.  And she asks him, “Are you … talking to me?!?”  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 (two groups which had nothing to do with each other), 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 and creating his own.

We can also surmise that this woman is also fairly low on the social ladder in town.  People normally went out to draw the days water early in the morning.  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, I was hard pressed to carry my laundry three blocks to the Laundrimat at any other time except right when they opened!  So something must be going on for this woman to avoid the rest of town while she went to the well for the days 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, whose story we heard last week and comes right before this story in the Gospel of John.  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 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.  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.  He is very patient as he explains what he is talking about, and she finds out she is not a nobody after all.  She MATTERS.

Often in the Bible it seems that people don’t know quite what to make of Jesus they first meet him.  Sometimes they are even dismissive or even have no idea who it is they are talking to.  One of the disciples even ridiculed Jesus’ upbringing by asking the question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  But the woman at the well was amazed that Jesus actually spoke to her.  He initiated the conversation with no prompting of her own.

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 same that she has had five husbands over the years and the man she is with now it 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 what it means to worship God.  Finally, she says that when Messiah comes he will reveal everything and all will be made clear.  It is here that 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.

Lent is a season when we attempt to be more aware of the parts of ourselves which separate us from God and take steps to change them.  Some people sacrifice something; other take on some volunteer work or add a meditation practice to their days.  As we reflect on our shortcomings, we have even want to hide under a rock or cringe in shame when we think of the wrongs we have done to ourselves and to each other.  The woman may have even wanted to run away when she realized she was talking to a man “who knew everything she had ever done.”   But Jesus loved her anyway.  He loves US anyway.

The living water he offers us is a love that cools the burn of shame when we feel the need to alter our daily routines just to avoid others.  It is a love that brings peace and joy to sustain us when times are tough and we don’t know where to turn.  We might think that we are nobodies and that we have nothing to offer anyone.  But Jesus thinks otherwise.  Jesus reveals himself to the very people that the world has written off and wants nothing to do with.  It is a living water that quenches our deepest thirst for a sense of belonging and community.  It sustains us as we go through the valley of Lent, under the shadow of the Cross, and to the other side at the empty tomb.

Here again the words from the Gospel of John.  “The woman left her water jar and went back to the city.  She said, “Come and meet a man who told me everything I have ever done…”  and he loves me … anyway.

Amen





What are you Looking For

20 01 2014

Text:  John 1: 29-34; Isaiah 49:1-7

Any time someone steps in a new pulpit, you cannot help but feel humbled.  I am especially honored by Father Hooper and especially by you, the first Episcopal congregation in the state of Florida to be here today.  I pray the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart ne not only acceptable to God, but may edify you as well.

I speak in the Name of God … Father, Son and Holy and Spirit.

Like many people in this age of the internet, I regularly follow a few websites and blogs, and one of those is called “Beauty Tips for Ministers.”  Beauty Tips for Ministers is maintained by Unitarian clergy named Victoria Weinstein, and the tagline for this site is “Because you are in the public eye, and God knows you need to look good.”  As you may expect, this blog has more than a few tongue-in-cheek moments such as looking to someone right here in Key West (female impersonator Randy Roberts no less!) for make-up inspiration.  Now while Beauty Tips for Ministers is geared mostly towards female members of the clergy, men should not fear for she will on occasion list some sage advice for us to follow, such as “Jesus will not judge you” if we use things like eye gel or moisturizer.  Alongside of this, Victoria has a few common sense insights into things like how to tell if your suit fits well or what kind of shoes are appropriate for a given occasion.  But what I think makes this blog particularly special is that she tries to show how all of us as Christians, not just pastors, priests and ministers, can be an Incarnational presence to the world through an intentional practice of self-care.  In this season of Epiphany, we journey with Jesus as he performs many signs and wonders and teaches us how we are to show to the world the love of God so that we may point to him as the ultimate expression of God’s love for us.  In other words, in this season, we see how Jesus really lives into one his titles, Emmanuel, which of course is “God is with us.”  And that brings us to our Gospel lesson for the day …

This is the second Sunday after the Epiphany and the lesson always comes from the Gospel of John.  Now, the Gospel of John is very different than Matthew, Mark and Luke because he does not simply tell a narrative of Jesus’ miracles interwoven with his sayings and other events in his life.  John tries to explain why Jesus does what he does and to paints Jesus in a more divine light than his counterparts by the use of signs and wonders.  In Epiphany, we celebrate God manifesting himself in human form, the enfleshment of God we call the Incarnation. So, you see it makes sense that we start the journey through this season with this Gospel so we are grounded in this idea and can view the rest of our lessons on the following Sundays in this light.

Today we get John’s account of Jesus baptism and the calling of the very first disciples.  The baptism itself is not described, but John the Baptist retells what he experienced by focusing on the signs and wonders and using them to point to Jesus as the Son of God.  This had such a tremendous impact on him that any time Jesus enters the scene, John the Baptist stops what he’s doing and says, “Behold the Lamb of God!”  Eventually we see John’s disciples begin to peel off and follow Jesus, just as Jesus begins to attracts followers in his own right.  John the Baptist recognizes Jesus as ranking ahead of him, so to speak, so in a way he is giving his disciples permission to leave and to move on.

I am sure all of us are familiar with the “What Would Jesus Do?” campaign which among other things sparked a great and profitable merchandising and branding opportunity (though that is an entire sermon in and of itself!), but the point of it on its face was to invite reflection and self-examination on what to do when you are faced with a moral dilemma.  Perhaps a better question may be “What Would John the Baptist Do?”  All John the Baptist does is point to Jesus and say, “Behold the Lamb of God.”  Part of our calling, our vocation as disciples of Christ is how we present ourselves and how we reach out the world pointing to Jesus and saying, “Look!  God is here!  God is in our midst and at work!  Working through us, in us, in SPITE of us, and standing here with us!  Behold the Lamb of God!”  And maybe … that is enough.  But notice that Jesus, in turn, as he is calling the first of the disciples is asking an even better question:  “What are you looking for?”

“What are you looking for?”

Now there is something for self-examination and reflection if there ever was.  It is not enough to say that you want to follow Christ, even though that is quite a very good start and at the end of the day, I am sure God will take it, but it also begs the question, “Why?”  What does it mean to say we are disciples of Christ?  Is it enough to say we believe in Him?  That we are in church most if not every Sunday?  That we tithe? That we adhere to a certain set of rules and doctrines?  We can argue that many of those things are part of it, but they don’t get to the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.  First we must answer the question, “What are you looking for?” and respond to Jesus’ call to “Come, and see.”

Some times it is difficult to hear that call.  Many times in the middle of all our busy lives when we are confronted with something bigger than ourselves, we can be oblivious to God’s call and even God’s presence.  And sometimes … we mess up.  I am as guilty as anyone of not my best foot forward, holding off things until the last minute, and saying exactly the most insensitive and offensive thing at the absolute worst time.  But, there is Good News.  God is faithful.  Our Old Testament lesson covers one of the Servant Songs of Isaiah, which are usually attributed to being about Jesus, but they really could apply to any of us as individuals or as a community.  Isaiah shows how the servant acknowledges his own shortcomings and failures to live up to the person God is calling him to be.  Then, in spite of that failure, the servant holds to hope and remembers God’s call; then, wonder of wonders what does God do?  God doesn’t put the servant off in the penalty box to “abhor himself and repent in dust and ashes.”  God enlarges the scope of the servant’s mission.  No longer will the servant be a light to just one nation, but to the entire world.

You see, because of the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus, being a disciple is now a two-way street.  It is about a relationship, not a set of rules.  It is us walking, talking and listening to God just as God walks, talks and listens to us.  The story of our faith is not so much about how mankind went off and searched for God, but how God became a man and went searching for us.  It reminds me of that passage later in the Gospel of John where Jesus tells his disciples, “Do not think you chose me, but I chose you and called you.”

Just over 100 years ago, the Flagler Railroad was finished and connected the Florida Keys to the mainland.  It was a long trip and sometimes it could be very difficult just like our own walk with Jesus can be.  There will be many times when our own journey is hard and difficult and there will be times when we want to give up.  We are afraid we just won’t get it right or we will say the wrong thing or act foolish, but the Good News of following Christ is that Jesus doesn’t require us to be right all the time … just to be faithful.  To keep at it even when we do want to give up.  Because of the Incarnation, we do not just follow a God who asks us to sit back and say, “Don’t worry about it … I’ve got this.”  The Good News I have for you today is because of the Incarnation, when we cry out to God, he says to us, “It’s ok … I get it.”

So when we get anxious, when we feel like a failure or we start to worry about any number of things going on in our lives and we say, “I can’t pay my mortgage, I can’t pay my rent, I’ve lost contact with my family and friends, I can’t find a good job, I feel so lonely, depressed and discouraged and sometimes I feel as dead as a corpse.”  The Good News I have for you today is that if you read your Bible you will find that every time that Jesus meets a corpse that dead person gets up and walks.  We just need to remember to keep walking with Jesus because we can rest assured he is walking with us.

He gets it.

He gets all the joy and the triumph, the pain and the sorrow.

Being a disciple is like being on a train.  It runs in two directions … to God and then back again.  You can’t help but be reminded of the lyrics to the song, “There ain’t but one train upon this track, it runs to heaven and it runs right back.”  Dear People of God, the Good News I have for you today is that as long as we are faithful in our walk with Jesus, this Great Gospel Train is bound for nothing short of glory.

So when Jesus asks us, “What are you looking for?” our response may be, “Actually … I think I’ve been looking for you.”  And then Jesus will respond in turn and say, “You know what?  I’ve been looking for you, too.”

God has come in the flesh and has come looking for us.  He gets what it means to be us.  And that just might be one of the greatest signs and wonders of them all.

 

Amen.





Meeting Jesus at the End of the World

17 11 2013

Text: Luke 21:5-19

There are moments in history where events seem to be so pivotal, it looks like the end of everything we know might be near. Some of us may have actually lived through those moments or at least were alive when they happened. I am sure there are some here who remember when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor back in 1941. 50 years ago this coming Friday President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. And even more recently, 11 years ago, the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center in New York City went down in a blaze of fire, concrete and steel. Years later, I remember taking the 1 train when the line re-opened and the subway would slow down and crawl along the tracks as it passed by what had become a hole in the earth. Through the cracks in the underground, you could look out and see all the death and destruction that was rained down upon the city. Last week we heard about a Typhoon which bore down upon the Philippines. Some accounts leave the death toll as high as10,000. Even more than that are left without adequate food and water, much less shelter. Looking into the future, if we study several climate change models, we can find it is quite possible that the State of Florida, including the Florida Keys, may all be underwater. It’s all quite scary or at the very least, unnerving, isn’t it?

Jesus talks about quite a bit of scary stuff in today’s Gospel reading. He says the temple is going to be destroyed, war is going to break out and there will be natural disasters like which has not been seen and people will try and deceive each other just like it seems that all sorts and conditions of hucksters come out of the woodwork when disaster strikes. However it is important to note the context within which Jesus is talking here. He and his followers have arrived in Jerusalem and the disciples are marveling at how grand and splendid it is. It cannot be stressed how important the temple was in 1st century Palestine. The very identity of who they are as Jews were bound up in the building. THIS was the place where God hung his hat and dwelt among them. Not just any god, like those worshipped by the Romans or any number of other people in the ancient world, but the one they called “The Living God,” the One who called the Jewish nation as his own people. Now imagine that along comes Jesus, the Messiah, God’s Anointed, and he more or less posts a sign next to it that says, “This Building is Condemned.” It is absolutely inconceivable that he would say such a thing! The temple is so much of a focus of this people’s faith that if it were gone or destroyed, you may as well say that their world has ended. But the temple WAS destroyed wasn’t it? A couple of generations later, in the year 70AD, the temple was razed to the ground, leaving only one wall standing which is still there today.

After the temple was destroyed, the art and treasure that was in it was taken to Rome and paraded through the streets, a reminder to all that nothing is stronger than the Empire and a lesson to those would seek to undermine it. The time leading up to the destruction of the temple is chronicled by the Jewish Historian, Josephus and by Luke in the book of Acts. In those accounts, we find in those days there were no less than 15 people who were claiming to be the Messiah and wanting to lead a rebellion against Herod or the Romans. There was famine; there were earthquakes. There was a succession of short-lived reigns of various Roman emperors like Claudius and Nero. The Gospel of Luke itself was written more or less after all this had happened, so we can surmise that Luke was trying to put current events into the perspective of Jesus sayings instead of trying to project some kind of prophecy 2,000 years into the future. But that doesn’t mean there is not a message that we can take from that and apply it to what we experience today.

Just as Jesus was talking about a scary and fearful time to his followers, there are times in modern history when it appears the world is falling apart. We hear about conflicts across the globe, injustices go unanswered and no end of natural calamities in sight. And indeed there are a great many people, even here in this town or maybe here with us today who may not know what tomorrow is going to bring. And it is in that fear when it seems like our entire world is crashing down around us, it is in that uncertainty when we are at our most vulnerable that the greatest of all these dangers that Jesus talks about strikes. And that is when someone comes and says, “I’ve got the answers. Listen to me, and I will show you the way and save you from destruction and despair.” It is no mistake that you can find no end of characters on the internet or on television, and usually you come across these folks in the middle of a sleepless night and you have no idea when the morning is going to come or if it is going to come at all. But like all deceivers, these characters are offering nothing but snake oil to prey on us with false promises of prosperity and blessing when we are at our weakest, when we are looking for someone … anyone … to save us from ruin and destruction. As we reflect upon these times, it would do us good to imagine what our response will be when OUR world is at an end.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across the story of a man named Thomas Dorsey. Mr. Dorsey was a talented musician, and devoted his time and talents between playing in both the church and in the secular world, jazz club, blues bars and the like. At one point, he felt so torn between these two realms that he decided he had to give one of them up, and so he devoted all his energies and talents to the church and to Gospel music. His vocation called him to travel extensively, forcing him at times to leave his pregnant wife at home. One night while he was away, he received a telegram that his wife died in childbirth. He rushed back home quickly as he could. Shortly after he returned, he lost his newborn son. Mr. Dorsey wound up burying his wife and son in the same casket. For Thomas Dorsey, HIS world had ended.

There are a great many promises in the Bible. Some of those promises say that we are going to go through rough patches, that there is going to be troubles to experience and that we might even suffer. Life happens to us all and it is only a matter of time before it comes knocking at our door. But, Jesus says that even in our darkest moments that THIS will be the time when we are to testify about the Good News of the Kingdom of God.

But how can this be? How can it be that when you have lost everything that this becomes an opportunity to tell of how wonderful and awesome God is? This is when Jesus steps in and says, “Fear not! I will be with you!” Coupled with the promises of rough patches and suffering is the promise that God will see us through to the end and that we will be given the words to speak and inspired to action at just the right time.

It may be that sometimes that it seems like we are living out our own version of the Book of Job, the story of a man who did lose everything … his property, his family, his health, and even his friends had no real support or comfort for him. But even when Job got angry and wondered what on earth was happening and how could God let this go on, his testimony was, “I know that my Redeemer lives and he shall stand at the Last Day.” Jesus said to his disciples right before he was arrested and carried off to his trial and execution, “In this world you will have great tribulation … but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”

We now return to our friend, Thomas Dorsey. After the death of his wife and son, he didn’t play music for quite a long time. The depths of his sorrow and despair were so great the well of creative juices and talent had apparently run dry. Until one day, in spite of himself he sat down and then a great sense of peace washed over him. He began to play a melody and before too long lyrics of a song were given to him. This song has become one of the great Gospel favourites and has helped to give the gift of hope to many. Those lyrics are, “Precious Lord, take my hand … Lead me on, let me stand.”

Suffering changes people. It brings about either an attitude of defeat or great hope. It reminds us that it is not so much about the time we have left to us, but what we do with what we are given. The African American theologian Howard Thurmin says of those who come through suffering to the other side, “Into their faces come a subtle radiance and a settled serenity; into their relationships a vital generosity that opens the sealed doors of the heart in all who are encountered along the way.”

Death, War, Destruction and despair might be the end of the chapter, but it is never the end of the story. When it feels like all is lost, Jesus is the One who finds you. In the middle of destruction, it is Jesus who restores. When it feels like death and despair is all around, remember when Jesus meets anyone who is dead, that dead person gets up and walks. When it feels as if you are all alone and have no where else to go or no one to turn to, that’s when Jesus shows up and you discover that he’s been right there with you all along. The Good News I have for you today is that this Lord is there to take your hand and lead you home.

David P Casey
Key West, FL 33040
+1 646 416 0218





The Cost of Discipleship

25 10 2013
In this country’s first gilded age during the late 1800s, there was a reporter who asked the financier JP Morgan how much it cost to operate his yacht on a yearly basis.  Morgan’s reply was “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” This saying has almost become a joke or a dig at someone else.  Now, JP Morgan certainly didn’t have to worry about the cost of anything.  With all of his wealth, the price of something was literally just numbers on a page.  Even today, after the shocks of the financial crisis in 2008 the wealthy did not appear to be overly concerned about the cost of something. Indeed, as an article in the NYTimes in the early days of 2009 talked about a concern not of how much money was spent; it was fear of how it would look to their peers if they were seen doing something frivolous or extravangant.  Those of us who are not so well off actually do have consider the costs of a new venture or a major purchase or an investment.  But for more mundane things easily within our reach, we really don’t pay much attention to its cost.  However, someone in public housing on a fixed income probably has very different priorities as to how they allocate their resources.
Jesus, in our Gospel reading this week, deals with costs.  He gives a few of what we call his “hard sayings” and tells a couple of parables about considering the cost of what it means to follow him.  The parables draw from different lives and scenarios, but the lesson is the same:  Do not take on more than what you can handle or can see through to the end. Jesus is warning his little rag-tag band of followers as they head ever closer to Jerusalem that he is not just some spiritual guru spouting some nice pithy sayings but he is inviting them to embark on a very costly operation.  He tells them of the person building a tower who would be a laughing stock if he was unable to finish it. He also speaks of a King who was considering going to war and would have to surrender if he didnt have the resources to defeat his opponent.  As if to underscore what he is talking about, Jesus goes ahead and says, “If you are not willing to give up everything you cannot be my disciple.”
There are several instances in this passage where Jesus says “whoever does not do x, y or z cannot be my disciple.”  It is a refrain he uses to talk about what it can mean to follow him.  My former assistant at the Ghost Tour came up to me several weeks ago with great excitement telling me that he was baptized at the Old Stone Church down the street and that he was getting involved in helping the kids of that community during Vacation Bible School.  Just like him, many new Christians find great joy once their faith is first awakened, but many do not grow beyond that first moment.  In some cases, they get disillusioned when they discover the Church is full of people who are simply not perfect.  Or they might even be shocked to discover that following Jesus means doing something more than showing up to a nice building once or twice a week.  (As an aside, I am happy to report that this is most likely not going to happen to this young fellow and by all accounts he is continuing to thrive and will do some great work with the youth group over there.)  Jesus wants to be perfectly clear that following him is not about going to a fancy dress party or being in a parade in the streets.
To add insult to injury, Jesus also goes into how you have to hate your family, friends and loved ones and even be willing to lose your life as you travel the path of discipleship.  Now, a much better translation of the word “hate” in this passage would be akin to the idea of turning away from one set of priorities or having a sense of detachment towards them because his point is that in the Kingdom of God, our priorities are different.  Hating one’s life is not a call to self-loathing, but rather an understanding that tensions could come in our lives and with the relationships of the ones we love.
So where is the Good News in all of this talk of costs?  When JP Morgan said, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it,” he was referring to material things.  Jesus is talking about something that we can’t live without.  He is not only laying out the best offer in town for eternal life, joy, hope and a ride on the Great Gospel Train of Salvation, 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.  But I can also tell you that even through all of 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.  We can remember the words of Jeremiah from today’s Old Testament lesson where God says, “Just like the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you also in my hand.”  No matter what we lose or what we give up as disciples, we can rest assured that just God is with us, guiding us to the places and people we need to be connected with.  The Good News I have for you today is that the Great Gospel Train of Salvation may not be stopping at Petticoat Junction … but this train is bound for nothing short of glory.
Amen.




George Jefferson and the Good Samaritan

7 08 2013

Text:  Luke 10: 25-37

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus asks, “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

Does anyone remember the TV show, “The Jeffersons?” For those of you who may not know, this was a sit-com which focused on the lives of a George and Louise Jefferson, an African-American couple from Queens who have made it big and have moved into a nice mostly white Upper East Side apartment building along with their son Lionel.  While thinking of this parable there is one episode which came to mind.  One of the Jefferson’s neighbors Tom, who is white, was robbed near the building and decided to arrange a tenants meeting.  It turns out that there was already a meeting nearby by a group of folks who were concerned about the wrong kind of people coming into the neighborhood and Tom was invited to attend.  Tom asked if he could bring some of his friends along and the organizers said, “Sure!”  Tom brought along some other tenants in the building including George, who as I mentioned earlier is black.  Imagine everyone’s surprise when it turns out the meeting was organized by the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

Needless to say, this proved to be rather tense for everyone and almost reaches to the level of violence when the leader of the Klan meeting started to have a heart attack.  George, in an act of compassion and mercy, ceases arguing with the Klansman and performs CPR on their leader and saves his life.  When the leader of the group revived and learned that his life had been saved by a black man, someone he despised with every inch of his life, he remained ungrateful and even told his son, “You should have let me die.”  But the son was so moved by the sight of someone he had been raised to hate and fear and call an enemy saving the life of his father that his heart was changed, and he renounced his membership with the Klan.

The story of the Good Samaritan is one that just about everyone knows, even if they are not a Christian.  It would not be so far-fetched to say that this parable contains the essence of what it means to be and act like a Christian.  It is so familiar, that when it comes up as the sermon topic for day, if you are sitting in the pews it is very tempting to settle back, tune out and wait for the invitation to rehearse the Creed.  If you are the preacher, it is very tempting to dust off a previous sermon on a timeless classic, update it a bit, and put yourself on autopilot.  The challenge with this and every familiar story that we hear is to listen to it with fresh ears.

Before we get into the parable itself, we find out the reason why it was told in the first place.  A lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life.  A better word for lawyer here might be scribe, or a lawyer whose realm of expertise was biblical law.  Both Jesus and the lawyer agree that everything hinges on loving God with all your heart, soul, and strength … all that you are … and also in loving your neighbor as you love yourself.  The lawyer though, requests further clarification, as lawyers often do.  He asks, “Who do you mean exactly? Tell me about this neighbor of whom you speak?”  And then Jesus launches into his story.

A man on a journey is waylaid by robbers and is left to die in a ditch.  Respectable members of the community pass by but do nothing.  Maybe they feel there is nothing they can do.  He might be already dead or even worse this might even be a trap playing on people’s sense of compassion.  The one who does finally offer help is one who is an outcast, a rival.

It is very difficult to convey the distaste, the revulsion, or even hatred that the Jews of the day felt towards the Samaritans.  These were two peoples who had nothing to do with each other.  I suppose a similar comparison might be a member of the Hatfield family coming to the rescue of one of the McCoys.  Or a member of the Palestinian group Hamas saving the life of an Israeli. The Samaritans were despised so much by the Jews that at the end of the story when Jesus asks the lawyer “who was the neighbor?” the lawyer can only reply by saying what the Samaritan did and making a point to NOT identify him by nationality or race.  In short, the Samaritan was the enemy.

But it is in this antagonism, in the mutual distrust between these two peoples that we get what this parable is about.  Many who read this parable will take out of it some “feel-good” lessons on the importance of random acts of kindness, charity to travelers or even helping out someone who is down on their luck.  It is in this parable that we start to get a sense of what Jesus means when he says, “Love your enemies” and what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

The lawyer, in his questioning, wants to define who deserves his love, but the parable says that love knows no boundaries.  To understand what it means to love your neighbor means a willingness to see an enemy as a benefactor, an agent of the Kingdom of God.  It means a willingness to help someone whom you would rather have nothing to do with.  When the Spirit of God moves us to act with compassion on one whom we might normally think does not deserve it … or when someone with whom we are at odds lends us a hand when we need it the most, there is no longer such a thing as an Enemy.

In that act of compassion and mercy, we find it is nothing less than an encounter with Jesus himself.  We look around to discover we are no longer in a ditch on the road to Jericho, but we find ourselves at the foot of the cross.  Laying aside our burdens of fear, contempt and mistrust, we find that we are transformed and we get a taste of what eternal life is all about.  When we engage in acts of compassion and mercy that becomes a way for the Kingdom of God to break into the world.

The son of a Klansman was able to let go of his fear and hate because George Jefferson was moved to save the life of his father … and that act caused everyone there to know what it means to have eternal life for fear and loathing were replaced by love.  Suddenly everyone wonders what all the fuss was about and why they were about to come to blows not even two minutes before.

The Good News I have for you today is that Salvation is found in loving your enemies, in knowing that your neighbor includes the person whose name you cannot bring yourself to mention.  In performing acts of compassion and mercy we not only bring the Gospel to the one we act upon but to ourselves and the entire human race.  We will then look at ourselves and wonder what all the fighting was about, and then keep on about the business of “movin’ on up” and loving each other.

Jesus asks, “Which of these men, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Amen.