Pentecost 9(C) August 11, 2019 — The Rev. Deacon Maureen Otwell

The gospel reading today is actually a continuation of the last Sunday’s gospel reading. Jesus is deep into instructing his disciples before he gives them the bad news that he will be leaving them. At this point in his gospel, Luke is just piling on all kinds of parables and instructions for living a righteous life. And he is making the point over and over that the accumulation of wealth in this world is a dead end for saving one’s soul and for bring about the kingdom of God.

The gospel reading this morning begins: “Fear not, little flock, for it has pleased your Abba to give you the kingdom.” And the kingdom God wishes to give us is a new reality. It is a reality that turns the world as we know it upside down. God has a vision of a flourishing creation. In this kingdom there is no social hierarchy; no need for armies to maintain control; no starving population nor beggars in the streets. People will actually live by the guiding principle God has given — to love God and love neighbor.

God desires a whole new set of assumptions that reflect God’s desires for a flourishing creation and these new philosophies of living together will take root in the real, lived experiences of the followers of Jesus.

In the reading from Luke today we are given a set of examples about how to live so that the kingdom will emerge into reality.

Jesus first tells the disciples to sell all they have and give their money to poorer people. He tells them to make purses that coins will not wear out, because they have no need for coins. The treasure they are to accumulate cannot be used in this world as it currently exists. They are to accumulate their treasure through loving and caring for the neighbor.

In the first part of this chapter, Jesus tells the disciples not to fear. The birds do not sow and reap, nor store up food, he tells them; God feeds them. And the flowers neither labor nor weave and yet they thrive in splendor. God sees to their flourishing. How much more will God do for you, you who are God’s precious flock. Jesus tells them, they must put their faith in God.

In the reading today, Jesus provides a final example of radical reliance on God for how to live a life in the kingdom of God. He tells them a story about the servants of a homeowner. Jesus says that as dutiful servants they should be dressed and ready with the lamps lit anticipating the return of their master. The homeowner may arrive at any moment and it is their obligation to be ready. And to their surprise the master of such an observant household will serve the servants.

If God is the homeowner and we are awaiting his return, we must have our house in order, our lamps lit and the table set. We cannot know when God will enter back into our time, our place. To be faithful, we must be ready. We must prepare our world for radical change. A world in which power is shared with justice. A world where our relationship with others is one of mutual benefit. The kingdom will arrive when we in our faith believe it will happen and in our actions act as though it is already here.

“Fear not, little flock.” That’s what Jesus says. We must have faith that the kingdom of God can become our reality. Faith. Now that’s a hard concept to hold on to. Faith is explored, tested and encouraged in all our readings this morning.

In the conversation Abraham has with YHWH in the Genesis reading, Abram tells YHWH that any gifts given to him will be wasted because he has no heir to inherit them. Abraham doesn’t want material gifts; he wants a son. YHWH promises him a son and even goes a step beyond and tells him his descendants will be as prolific as the stars in the night sky.

Abraham does what YHWH asks of him and still conceives no child with Sarah. Issac is finally born to Sarah and Abraham when Abraham is 99 years old. Abraham and Sarah had to wait a long time to see the promise YHWH made to them fulfilled. We are told that “… Abram believed YHWH, and God accounted it to Abram as righteousness.”

What does it mean to be righteous? Righteousness is one of the chief attributes of God in the Torah. It means to be true to one’s social obligations and commitments. The God described as YHWH in Genesis is righteous. If this God makes a covenant with you, this God will delight in fulfilling those promises. You cannot have social obligations and commitments with a remote god. You must be in a personal relationship to have such mutual bonds.

Abraham and Sarah’s deep faith in the promise of YHWH obligates YHWH to fulfill his commitment to them — no matter how long that fulfillment may take. Abraham and Sarah’s faith is profound and unshakable. And it is more than a one-way street; their faith has a match to that given by God. Righteousness bonds with righteousness. Faith brings about the promises of God.

The example of Abraham’s faith is why we encounter him again in the reading from Hebrews. Here is a community beset with doubts and persecution; some are weary of waiting for the promises of the Lord to be fulfilled. Others in the community are finding it difficult to live by the example of Jesus. Their expectations were that the reward of a new order would come sooner rather than later. The community is now into a second or even third generation since Paul founded them. They can no longer imagine a Kingdom to come; they are loosing faith.

The letter writer is reaching back into the past for examples of how God’s promises are fulfilled and that profound faith indeed is our part in bringing about the kingdom of God. The writer hopes to encourage the people that God does remember God’s obligations and commitments. The writer tells them: “As a result of their faith (Sarah and Abraham), there came forth from one woman and one man, … descendants as numerous as the stars in heaven and the sands of the seashore.” The God who kept the promise to Abraham and Sarah is worthy of our trust.

I’d like to believe that “fear not” is a comforting message for this week in which fear and evil stalked us through one unexplainable mass murder after another.

For me, however, it’s hard to take the advice contained in the Letter to the Hebrews. It’s hard for me to look back over the centuries and see God’s promises to us being fulfilled. I feel our world has forever been falling into an abyss. Within our own lifetimes, our world has experienced wars and armed conflicts that go on decades; hunger and poverty that seem to have no solutions; and now a deteriorating climate and environment that is likely to eradicate life on this planet as we know it. We are no better than the people of Sodom and Gomorrah who were devoured by their own greed.

It is in times like this past week when I am praying for a different world to come into existence that I remember an example of how one community faced adversity with love and humility, with generosity and forgiveness, and my own heart begins to heal.

In 2015 the members of Mother Emanuel Church gave us an example to follow in times like we experienced this past week. They demonstrated a faith that will bring about the world that God desires us to live into. That morning church members had their lights lit and the doors ready to open at a moment’s notice. They had prepared the banquet of love for whomever came through the door. Love spilled out as they welcomed the thief to the banquet. Those church members who survived that mass murder spoke of forgiveness and love in the face of the evil that entered their church and killed nine of their friends, family members and congregation. Their faith is as deep and profound as Sarah and Abraham. That congregation demonstrated for us that through love we can live into being the people God wishes us to be.

They set the banquet table with love.  They were ready.
Because of their example I can cling to Faith and live into Love. With Faith we can live into becoming the kingdom of God.

Sermon 7 (C) Pentecost – The Rev. Maureen Otwell, July 28, 2019

Such a lovely Gospel reading this morning. Jesus isn’t overwhelmed or stressed by hungry crowds of followers. He isn’t impatient with his disciples for not getting some point he’s been making about God or his own ministry. And he isn’t working miracles of healing that I’m always pressed to understand or explain.

In our gospel this morning, Jesus is simply asked by the disciples to teach them to pray. Could I have asked for a more straight-forward gospel on which to preach?

So, why did it take me three days of contemplation, multiple sources and copious reading to begin writing a sermon about prayer and especially this prayer that Jesus taught the disciples.

Let me ask you-all: Think back to your childhood. When did you learn to pray? Can you even remember who taught you your first prayers? Who encouraged you to have a prayer practice?

I’ve searched my memories and I cannot recall learning to pray. At some point early in my childhood, I must have learned The Lord’s Prayer. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know this prayer. Because I attended 12 years of parochial school, the teachers led us in short morning prayers before the start of the school day. My family did say grace before our evening supper. At some point, my parents must have encouraged me say prayers before I went to bed, because I do have a memory of praying before going to sleep at night.

Theologians have noticed that in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is described as praying before significant events are about to take place. If that is so, then the opening of this gospel is important to consider. Luke specifically tells us that “One day Jesus was praying, …” Jesus was praying.

The gospel doesn’t record that Jesus was leading the disciples in prayer; nor that Jesus and the disciples were praying together. Jesus is the only one praying. What were the disciples doing? Just hanging out, waiting for Jesus to finish? Surely adult Jewish men of this time must know how to pray. Why aren’t they imitating Jesus’ practice of prayer?

Luke continues his narrative as one of the disciples asks: “Rabbi, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” At this time it was customary for a Rabbi to teach his followers a simple prayer to use; a prayer that would become a practiced habit. Our text mentions that John the Baptist had done so; the disciple mentions this in his request to Jesus. The disciples expect Jesus to behave as John did. So, this request and the prayer that Jesus teaches them shouldn’t stand out as an unusual event in the life of a rabbi and his disciples.

But since Jesus is depicted as praying at the start of this gospel chapter and that action commonly occurs in Luke’s gospel when something important is about to happen, I have to ask, what is really going on here? Luke is drawing our attention to something significant. We need to pay attention and ponder what is so important.

We all recognize the prayer Jesus teaches his disciples as the prayer we now call, “The Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father.” This prayer has been passed down to all Christians throughout the centuries. It has the weight of an official Christian creed, doctrine or dogma. The Catechism of the Catholic Church claims it “… is truly the summary of the whole gospel.” It’s probably the only creed, dogma or doctrine all the branches of Christianity can agree on.

One of the scholars in all that laborious reading I did, asked what I thought to be the most important question about this prayer. He asked: What does this prayer tell you about God? About God’s nature? About how to think about God?

Jesus names God, Abba – or “father.” He taught the disciples and subsequently us to call God by the name “father.” To name someone is to give a description of the character of that person. Jesus’ first lesson then is to claim that the followers of Jesus have a close and personal relationship with God. God is Abba to us; God is our begetter, the giver of our very lives.

In the following lines the disciples learn that they are to acknowledge that God is holy and to be honored and revered. They are to petition God to give them sustenance for their present needs — bread enough for one day only; to ask for forgiveness of their sins conditioned on the fact that they have forgiven those who have harmed them; and to close with a plea to spare them from any future afflictions they may have to face.

In the parable that follows the brief prayer, Jesus explains further about the nature of this Abba, our parent. Jesus says, “If you with all your sins, know how to give your children good things [and not give them snakes or scorpions when they ask for fish or eggs] how much more will our heavenly Abba give … to those who ask.” Our parent will give us only good. We need only to ask. It sounds so simple; so easy. Ask and you shall receive endless bounty.

Does God always provide what we ask for? As a child I asked for many blessings from God; most of them went unfulfilled. Does the parable provide a strategy, some prayer practice that will guarantee that God will respond to my needs? My younger sister spent at least 11 years praying for a pony. Perhaps she asked in the wrong way. Maybe she should have copied Abraham’s example in our Old Testament reading this morning and tried bargaining with God. If she started with asking for 10 horses, maybe she’d have finally gotten the one!

The parable Jesus tells his disciples describes the actions of a person who has unexpected visitors and is caught with an empty cupboard. He goes to his neighbor for help. He will be shamed if he cannot provide for his guests. It is a grievous transgression against the ancient custom of hospitality not provide all one can for visitors. So, he pounds on his neighbor’s door until he gets the response he wants.

Is the parable then a description of how we must ask God for what we need? Must we pound with fists on the doors until the otherwise-occupied God rouses from sleep to provide what we need? Jesus says: “That’s why I tell you, keep asking and you’ll receive; keep looking and you’ll find; keep knocking and the door will be open to you.”

Must we harass God with prayer until God finally gives us what we believe we need? If we fail to get what we need from God, is it our fault, our sin, because we just weren’t persistent enough? What sin have we committed that we get no response from this paternal God? Did we use the wrong prayer practice. We’re on the Benedictine prayer practice this month and God is only responding to those practicing Loyola’s teachings.

Of course, that’s absurd! What does God, our father, promise to give us? As Jesus assured his disciples: “Our heavenly Abba will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.”

Prayer is the practice of seeking God’s presence. Prayer is our way of communicating with God. We ask through prayer for the guidance, reassurance, persistence, inspiration so that we can bring about the vision of our Abba in our sin-filled world.

We are born of the life-giving love of the Creator to bring about God’s kingdom in our time. Through prayer we acknowledge that we belong to the “otherness” that is God. From prayer we take the persistence to bring about God’s vision of generosity and love in our time.

The prayer Jesus teaches the disciples and us is that:
God hears.
God provides.
God forgives.
God protects.
God expects us to be generous to each other.

Prayer is how we know that God is our companion through the difficult times and difficult places we encounter in our lives. Prayer is where we find the grace to be generous to the others we meet along our path.

Pentecost (Year C) June 9, 2019 The Rev. Maureen Otwell

I watched the movie, Mary Madeline last week. In this film Judas is portrayed in a very different light. His motivation for betraying Jesus is not greed, but an inability to understand just what Jesus’ ministry on this earth is. Judas is all about the imminent revolution in this film’s interpretation. When Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Judas expects the people to rise up, confront and defeat the Roman occupiers. But the people are raising palm branches, singing alleluias! They are not throwing stones; they have not pounded their plows into swords and spears. Heaven has not opened to the revenging angels who are to lead the rebellion!

Judas is totally bewildered by this. He ask Mary in his confusion, where are the legions of God’s army that are supposed to arrive to restore the Kingdom? This is the Messiah, right? Over the next few days, Judas comes to the conclusion, if Jesus is betrayed, given over to the authorities, jailed and maybe tortured, then these actions will be enough for Jesus to trigger the armies of God; to bring on the rebellion.

The eminent theologian, Walter Brueggemann, would say that this Judas suffers from “royal consciousness.” A delusion many of us even in modern eras suffer from. This is the belief that “the king-temple-royal city construct can be the guarantor of both social and cosmic order, and that this human construct protects persons and communities from the dangers of anarchy. “Royal consciousness” is what the Romans called, in their official propaganda, Pax Romana. Judas would replace the human construct of a Roman empire for the construct of a Jewish one. Under a Jewish king and within a Jewish empire, the people would be free.

In the last episode of the Game of Thrones, all the survivors are sitting around talking about what to do next. The resident scholar, Sam Tarley, proposes a democracy — “Let the people choose the king,” he suggests enthusiastically. The others turn to him with unconcealed disbelief and derision. “Should I let my pigs have a say as well?” One of them snarls. None of them can conceive of a world that they have not experienced. Now that they have destroyed the world they all understood and knew, they must begin again. They have the freedom to change; to be something they have never been before, but in the end they can only replicate the world they know.

Let me move now to the room where Jesus’ followers have gathered after his crucifixion and resurrection. Can you see these defeated people, whose dreams of the restoration of the kingdom of Israel lay shattered at their feet. Can you feel their despair, their anguish, their fear? It’s palatable; it hangs in the air; it eats at their souls. Roman peace is wielded, not through love of neighbor as Jesus taught, but is maintained through oppression, corruption and violence. The followers of Jesus are waiting for their time on the cross.

This moment of anguish is best expressed by a poet/songwriter of our modern age. [“It Seemed The Better Way,” Book of Longing, Leonard Cohen]

It seemed the better way
When first I heard him speak
But now it’s much too late
To turn the other cheek
It sounded like the truth
It seemed the better way
You’d have to be a fool
To choose the meek today
I wonder what it was
I wonder what it meant
He seemed to touch on love
But then he touched on death
Better hold my tongue
Better learn my place
Lift my glass of blood
Try to say the Grace

The mouths of Jesus’ followers are dry with the dread of their future; their thirst unquenched by the thoughts of blood they likely will taste. They are traumatized by the death of their Messiah. Not one remembers his last words to them.

All the Gospels record that Jesus appears to the disciples over and over after his resurrection, however, this does not propel them to action. Jesus reassures them over and over that when he finally leaves, the Father will send another to be with them. The Spirit of Truth will come to guide them and be with them. This counselor will guide them as Jesus has guided them. According to Luke, Jesus has told them to stay in Jerusalem until “the power from on high is given to them.” They are keeping a low profile and awaiting further developments.

In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke tells us that by Pentecost, also know as the Feast of Weeks in the Jewish calendar, the remnants of the flock are gathered in Jerusalem. When the festival day arrives they are all in one room.

“Suddenly they heard what sounded like a violent, rushing wind from heaven; the noise filled the entire house in which they were sitting. Something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each one.”

The breath of God; the fire of Divine presence; the sounds of creation’s birth. The presence of wind that moved across the waters of chaos at the birth of creation — call this what you will. The Spirit of life-creating love fills the house and those present.

These scared, helpless people are transformed, changed forever. They are no longer who they were; they are baptized into the vision of a new creation. The Spirit is within them, just as Jesus promised. They are one with God, one with Truth, one with Wisdom; one with Christ.

I could spend the rest of my life, right here in this moment. Forever trying to capture in my imagination this transformative moment. To dwell on the mystery of what happened that day to these ordinary people. I desire to feel that in my own bones.

But it is after this moment, in the reality of human time and human place, that the miraculous actually happened. The fog of empire-consciousness that mislead Judas is lifted. The recognition that the social constructs humans create can never be without violence, greed, anxiety, corruption and desperate need. The followers of the Way see clearly God’s intentions, God’s vision for God’s creation. There is no kingdom, no nation, no human-designed authority in God’s world. It is a community where love is the foundation; and loving relationships are the ties that bind.

This is the good news of the new creation that Peter and the others announce in the public squares of Jerusalem. The people hearing them think they may be drunk. And they seem drunk; drunk with the excitement of seeing and believing in the possibilities of God’s creation. The Spirit has given them the ability to be understood in all the languages of the known world. God speaks to each of us in our own heart language. This world can be different, the disciples proclaim! If we follow the commandments of God and live out God’s vision, this world will be different.

Our psalm for today sums up that vision succinctly. “Send your breath,” the psalmist says, “and fresh life begins.” Take away your breath and all becomes primordial dust. The psalm presents an image of God as a verb by whose very breath creation continues to birth anew. Paul tells us because we are the adopted children of God, we are part of God’s eternal dance of creation. In our baptism we are joined to God through the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus and the continuing presence of the Spirit. We need no human constructions to live into our inheritance — no temples, nor no nations. We are the physical manifestation of God’s love. We are part of God’s breath in God’s creation. To love God and our neighbors with all our hearts and souls is live into and bring about the creation God desires.

When will we take up the challenge of our baptism and leave behind our belief in the human constructs in which we daily live and breath? We can give up our lives within our own empire. We can live into and co-create God’s future!

4C Easter — The Rev. Maureen Otwell

I found it difficult to settle a theme for my sermon today. I found myself bouncing through several emotions, even contradictory emotions as I approached each reading.

The beauty and simplicity of Psalm 23, for example, seems to have nothing in common with the reading from Revelations. And neither seem to connect to Peter’s miracle described in the reading from Acts of bringing Tabitha back to life. And the Gospel reading. Where to begin! It’s John after all! In the Gospel Jesus seems impatient; tired of all the speculation about who he is and what he’s about. Did I really want to tackle this moody Jesus? Maybe I could just reread Psalm 23 and we could all go home happy, wrapped in lovely images for our Mothers’ day celebrations. In the end I settled down into John. It’s a wintry gospel reading and I was cold and grumpy; John seemed a good match for my own mood.

As always with John, the Gospel setting is important. In our Gospel reading this morning, John sets this last confrontation between Jesus and the more traditional Jewish authorities at the Temple in Jerusalem. In John’s Gospel, Jesus and his followers spend quite a bit of time in Jerusalem celebrating major Jewish feast days throughout his three-year ministry. This time Jesus and his disciples are in the Temple to celebrate the Feast of the Dedication.

The Feast of the Dedication is celebrated in mid December. It commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple by Judas Maccabeus in 164 B.C.E. after the defeat of Antiochus IV who had defiled the Temple’s inner sanctuary and decorated the Temple with statues of various Greek gods including Zeus. Today the feast is better known as Hanukkah or the Festival of Lights. This is more, however, than just a religious feast. It is also a politically charged, nationalistic celebration. Jewish people from all over the Diaspora arrive in Jerusalem to celebrate the successful rebellion led by Judas Maccabeus. It was this rebellion through which the Jewish people won back their right to practice their religion, a right that had been suppressed under Antiochus.

So, John sets this last confrontation between Jesus and Jewish authorities at a celebration of a successful rebellion. Furthermore Jesus is teaching in Solomon’s Porch, a covered walkway on the east side of the Temple. John refers to the location so specifically that I had to wonder if this was intentionally symbolic. I thought it was interesting that this porch was also known as the porch of judgment. And there’s an awful lot of judging going on in our Gospel today.

According to John’s Gospel, Jesus had been teaching in the Temple complex and around Jerusalem for the last few months. His preaching is drawing larger and larger crowds and creating quite a lot of speculation about who he is. Questions about his identity were on every lip and interest in him is becoming more intense. Was he the promised Messiah? Or was he just another itinerant quack preacher? Was he a charismatic prophet in the tradition of Elijah? Or was he trying to stir up a revolution against Rome and its Jewish collaborators? Was he possessed by demons?
It is within this context of conflicting speculations about Jesus’ identity that some Temple authorities approach Jesus and ask: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” (10: 24) If he is the promised Messiah, it’s time to begin organizing an army to throw off the present-day oppressors.

Jesus responds: “I have told you and you do not believe. The works that I do in my father’s name testify to me.” No words can describe who Jesus is. This purposeful obscurity reminds me of the answer Moses got from God when he asked who was talking to him. Moses didn’t get a name either; instead he got the cryptic “I am who I am.” What are we to make of this God/human who cannot be clearly identified?

Jesus does provide the answer. Actions, not words, testify to who Jesus is. And when he tells the questioners, “The Father and I are one,” Jesus infuriates them to the point that they take up stones to kill him. These people would have been able to accept a Messiah who might be sort-of divine or at least divinely sent, but they believe Jesus is claiming to be God. The traditionalists, who have confronted Jesus, see a human who is claiming to be God. They do not see God who acts in human form. At this point Jesus moves into what would be considered blasphemy in the eyes of traditional Jews. And it is this very claim that would cause an irreparable split between traditional Jewish thought and the followers of Christ.

Jesus claims they should know who he is by his acts. Wholeness and healing cannot be the outcome of a demon or a charlatan. Even our earliest stories describe a God who desires to walk with us and to be our companion. There are no words to describe this Messiah; Jesus’ actions demonstrate God’s nature. Jesus has performed not only signs, but more importantly has lived a life that demonstrates love, compassion and empathy. He has shared his table with the outcasts of society. He has demonstrated how to break down the barriers that keep humans from living in loving relationships with each other. Jesus is not only the Good Shepherd with a staff to guide and defend the flock. He is the shepherd who will look for a lost sheep until that sheep is found. He is the parent who will welcome back with joy and celebration the prodigal children.

Jesus describes himself as in a relationship with the Father when he says “I am one with the Father.” Just as Jesus called his disciples into a relationship with him, Jesus invites all human beings into that relationship as well. Participating in a relationship with God leads to belief. Belief does not come first. I am reminded that Episcopalians say praying shapes believing. An action shapes faith. We also say: “They will know who we are by the breaking of the bread.” We invite others into relationship at our table as Christ has invited and taught us by his actions. As Christians we are called to imitate Christ, that is what it means to know his voice and to be within his flock.

Jesus is frustrated in this Gospel passage by those who want him to be something that is not within his nature. Jesus will not be another Judas Maccabeus who raises an army and fights for an earthly kingdom. Jesus does not depict his followers as soldiers, but as sheep. He invites us into a relationship with the divine through the gate he has opened for us and promises we will always be with him. By imitating Jesus we will hear the voice of God and know our direction is true – we will live into God’s reality of love by listening to God’s voice and imitating God’s actions.

Being in relationship with each other and caring deeply for those we encounter in our world is to imitate Christ and follow Christ into our destiny of divinity. Listen to your heart, the ear that hears the voice of God and respond in love.

In the words of the Hymn we sang today: “Shepherd me, oh God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life,” divine and eternal.

Meditation for Good Friday The Rev. Deacon Maureen Otwell April 19,2019

“O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer;
by night as well, but I find no rest.” [Psalm 22: 2]

We stripped the sanctuary last night of all the symbolic presence of God.

The bareness of the sanctuary makes our place of worship unfamiliar, even uncomfortable.

Feel the loss of the presence of that love. God’s Love, as Jesus’ disciples would have felt it.

Earlier today, Jesus’ followers abandoned and betrayed him to the suffering and agony of the cross. In their fear, they do not remember or understand his lessons on love. Jesus will die on the dung-heap of our human culture – among the things we toss away; among the trash that has no value for us any longer.

In our church emptied of the symbols of God’s presence, we wait in a comfort-less place and remember. We feel the grief of separation from the loving nature of God.

After my comments, I ask you to sit with me in silent reflection to
consider the meaning of this day of death.

Picture the place of Jesus’ crucifixion in your mind.  Hundreds of crosses stretching across a desolate, skull-strewn landscape.

Stark reminders of what happens in human history when one walks into the cross-hairs of powerful people.

Imagine the one you follow nailed to a wooded cross
a common criminal
a denounced heretic.

See a scourged and bloody Jesus hanging by nailed hands, suffering a long, slow, suffocating death.  Truly, Good Friday is the day we walk into the valley of death and despair.

Stand with Mary, his mother, the other women and the beloved disciple John, who gather below his cross.

Hear his last words, “It is finished.” Words that suck hope out of their world.

Feel what the followers feel.
They witness a Jesus so degraded, so mortally wounded, so very alone.

What does he mean, “It is finished?”
This terrible and agonizing dying cannot be the end!

What doubt, grief and terror those final words must have struck into the hearts of those who believed him to be the Messiah. They cling to each other dreading that this will be the forever after. When he called them, they had dropped everything to follow.

And where has that path led?

To this shameful hilltop;
To a heretic’s punishment;
To an all-too-real, human death;
To a crushing loss of hope.

Shamed, scourged, mocked, Jesus goes to his death a willing sacrifice. He drank his cup to the bitter end.

We entered Holy Week on Palm Sunday with glorious alleluias and ended that same day with cries of “Crucify Him!” We still stand in that luminal space — that space between unknowing and knowing. That space between the promise of a Messiah and the bitterness of the death of dreams. That space betwixt darkness and light.

Freeze your image there – beneath the cross.

Let us be present with Jesus’ followers through this day;

Let us open our hearts to the suffering and death of Jesus;

Let us hold the bitter cup the believers are asked to drink;

Let us feel the weight of this Jesus we follow;

I thought about ending our meditation here in this dark, soulless place. But the Spirit this morning had something else in mind. I am remembering the vision Isaiah had in the Temple.

The vision where he sees the robes of the Holy One seeping out of the innermost Tabernacle into the temple, filling up every nook and cranny with God’s presence with the smell of God’s grace. Even the Temple cannot contain God’s presence.

Let us open our hearts on this day of sorrow to the presence of God’s grace.

Breathe in God’s light beginning to crack through into our broken, sorrow-filled world.

Breath in God’s spirit which even death cannot destroy.

Let us lose ourselves in God’s act of eternal love.

Contemplative Meditation – April 7, 2019 The Rev. Deacon Maureen Otwell

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. AMEN. (Ps 19: 14)

Let me spend a few moments to set up the scene for this week’s Gospel reading before you drop into your meditation.

Last week, Father Lee asked us to consider who was the prodigal son in the Gospel lesson. Who was the extravagant, wasteful one? Who in the end, demonstrates the Way of Love?

This morning, the Gospel once again asks us to consider who is the prodigal one.

Here’s a list of synonyms for prodigal: wasteful, extravagant, imprudent, immoderate, thriftless, excessive, intemperate, irresponsible, self-indulgent, reckless and wanton.

Ah now, wanton, that’s my favorite of all those synonyms I listed. I want you to hold onto that one; I’m going to return to it later in our meditation.

This parable takes place after Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead. That Lazarus, whom his sister described as having the stink of four days dead. For our meditation today, it is important to recall that odor of death.

Bethany, where our parable takes place, lies about two miles from Jerusalem. And the time of the year is six days until the Passover celebration. The scent of death is near; it’s in the air. Perhaps Jesus can smell it floating toward him from the gates of Jerusalem.

Get comfortable; close your eyes, if you wish.

You have been invited to dine with Lazarus this evening. You’re excited and honored to be going. The miracle man will be there and speculation about him has been spreading like wild fire throughout the town. You wonder if he is indeed the promised Messiah. Your servant told you that the Temple authorities have put out the word that they intend to arrest him, if he comes to Jerusalem. The town is simmering with speculation. What will happen? What comes next in this prophet’s life?

After your feet are washed by a servant, you are directed to the dining room. You greet Martha as an old friend, and she invites you to take your place at the U-shaped dining table. The room is crowded and people are talking quietly. The atmosphere is that of old friends enjoying each other’s company.

You stretch yourself out on the dining couch Martha has reserved for you. Dining is a long process in a household with the social status of Lazarus. Your dining couch has several soft, large and small, decorated pillows so you can prop yourself up to eat in a comfortable position and reach the table.

You watch as Martha’s supervises the servants as they put out last-minute wonderful smelling dishes.

See and smell the food piling up in front of you. Soup smelling of onions and a stew with simmering meat; grapes, figs and cakes are being served. And a servant fills you cup with sweet smelling wine. Lazarus’ family can afford to put on a good spread. The smell of the food is making your mouth water.

You are suddenly aware that a lovely aroma is surrounding you — filling up the entire room. Indeed, filling up the entire house. What is that amazing smell? It fills your nostrils and invades your lungs. It is almost overpowering in its sweetness.

You realize that Mary is washing the feet of Jesus with a strong ointment.

Your neighbor leans in close and tells you that the ointment is nard. You know how expensive this is. The ointment is made from a plant indigenous to the far east. It is not easily available and it is very expensive. Someone else whispers to you that it costs close to 300 denarii — a year’s wages and she’s just poured it out over Jesus’ feet!

Now she’s using her hair to dry Jesus’ feet!

One of the disciples — the one called Judas, you think, is complaining to Jesus that Mary is wasteful, extravagant, imprudent, immoderate, thriftless, excessive, intemperate, irresponsible, self-indulgent (pick your adjective). He implies that Jesus is self-indulgent to allow her to do this.

What is your reaction to this extraordinary scene?

What might Lazarus or Martha feel at this moment? It’s their money Mary pours over Jesus’ feet.

What about the disciples? What do the make of this extravagant act?

What does Jesus feel as Mary’s pour the oil onto his feet and wipes his feet with her hair? What does her hair dripping in oil feel like against his flesh?

What is Mary feeling as she wraps her hair around his feet?

What is the relationship shared between Jesus and Mary in this act?

Who is feeling intimacy? Solice? Love?

Is this a wanton act, as Judas appears to believe?

A waste of resources — oil that could have been sold and the money used for the poor?

Who is feeling grief or anger?

What are you feeling?

And what do you to imagine is going on in this story?

Does the ointment stand for the smell of new life in contrast to the odor of death that Jesus removed from Lazarus?

Does this story foreshadow the coming death of Jesus? Is Mary’s act one of preparing Jesus for his death and burial? Does it cover up the smell of death Jesus fears coming from Jerusalem?

Is Mary another prodigal — a sister this time — whose wanton waste of a precious commodity is a sin? After all she doesn’t anoint Jesus’ head, she pours the expensive perfume over his feet!

Mary’s actions are intimate — the sensuality of her gesture, her hair dripping with scented oil, bathing Jesus’ feet. They offend Judas.

Why does Judas complain about the waste?

Is Judas incapable of feeling that kind of intimacy with Jesus? Does he use the excuse of wasting resources to condemn Mary and hide his real sin of disbelief? He is a disciple. Doesn’t see who Jesus is? Isn’t Jesus worth such a price and gesture?

Does Mary sees who Jesus is — the very source of endless love. Is she giving back to Jesus what God offers to us through Jesus — abundant, fertile, extravagant love. The kind of love that Jesus dies to give us.

Is Mary’s gift, an extravagance of love — an outpouring of love that Jesus will need to carry him through his death?

Perhaps Mary is John’s description of how our relationship with Christ should feel. We don’t just receive love in a relationship with Christ; we give love as well. The relationship is meant to be mutual. Abundant love births abundant love.

I’ll end with a quote from Oscar Wilde:
Where there is no extravagance
there is no love,
and where there is no love
there is no understanding.

Sermon 3 Lent (Year C) –The Rev. Maureen Otwell, Deacon –March 24, 2019

Do you have fond memories of being near or in water? Maybe you can imagine floating on top of it. Or feel the waves crash over your toes and splash salty water up into your mouth. Maybe you’re fishing; or watching for whales to surface or enjoying the dolphins riding the waves behind the boat you’re in. We are not the only creatures who delight in water — who need water to live.

March 22 was World Water Day. This United Nations’ event highlights the importance of fresh water and advocates for sustainable management of all water resources. Their website states that globally one in nine people still have no access to clean water. Think about that. I have at least nine relatives. How would I feel if one of them had no easy access to drinkable water? What would I do to make that change?

Did you know that 60% of the adult human body is water. And every living cell in our bodies needs water to keep functioning. Indeed, a human being can only last 3 – 4 days without water. We can live for weeks without food, but not so without water. No wonder the rock, from which Moses made water flow, had to journey with the Israelites throughout their 40 years in the wilderness. Paul, in our reading from Corinthians this morning, names that rock, Jesus. The one who quenches our thirst — figuratively and literally.

“My soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.”

Our psalm reminds us of the life-gift that water is. The psalmist compares that very human need for water with the way humans desire to know God, to be in relationship with God. We have a thirst brought on by a spiritually bleak and unforgiving place to shelter under God’s wings, to drink water from the rock Christ provides.

Minnesota and Wisconsin are states with plentiful water resources. The Great Lakes hold 20% of the world’s fresh surface water; more important though, they comprise 90% of North America’s fresh surface water. It seems impossible to those of us who live around the Great Lakes to think that anyone could conceive of transporting water from the Great Lakes to other places less rich in water resources. But actually, this has been proposed several times, especially as the water resources of the Colorado River are diverted into irrigation for expanding farm land in the southwest. Currently, by the time the Colorado River reaches its end destination — a 1,450 mile journey from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California— that great river is almost a trickle. It’s drainage basin covers 246,000 square miles and includes parts of seven states and northern Mexico and yet before it gets to the ocean on those years when it actually does make it to the Pacific Ocean, it is only a trickle.

So, should we share our water with the dryer southwest? After all, we in the upper Midwest, do like our lettuce on the grocer’s shelves 12 months a year, don’t we? Our wake up call came in 1998 when the Canadian Government actually allowed a private company to ship Great Lakes water to Asia.

As a result in 2008, the “Great Lakes Contract” was approved by all eight states bordering the Great Lakes. It was passed by congress and signed into law under President George W. Bush. This compact bans diversion of Great Lakes water to communities outside the Great Lakes basin. All states in the compact must unanimously agree to any water diversion project. Two Canadian provinces bordering the Great Lakes must be afforded the opportunity to comment on diversion projects. Any community applying for a diversion must be associated with a county on a Great Lake and must demonstrate that it has exhausted all available options for getting water. In other words, a diversion must be a last resort. Such an exception was granted last year for a city in Wisconsin. The wealthy city that requested the waver is only 7 miles from Lake Michigan. However, consider that Flint, MI is only 69 miles from Lake Huron. We all know what shape Flint’s water is in. Why should one community be given access and the other not?

I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of efforts to drain some of the water of the Great Lakes to other parts of the United States. Lake Mead, which is part of the Colorado River is the primary source of water for Las Vegas and 22 million people; it is expected to dry up by 2021, if current climate conditions continue.

Have any of you seen the Mad Max movies? Is that brutal, bleak and uncompromising dystopia what’s ahead for the lives of our grandchildren or their grandchildren as natural resources become precious commodities? Will our countries begin to break apart when we start to really argue — perhaps go to war — over who will get potable water and who will not?

I paraphrase the words of the deputy director of the Woods Hole Resource Center, who commented on the 2018 NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency) report after that report stated that 2018 was the 4th hottest year in human recorded history.

“The last five years are the five hottest ever recorded. At every level of government and society, we must take seriously these dire warnings about what might happen if we fail to …. address [global climate change]. Time is running short, we need to pay attention to the science, and take decisive action to address global warming.”
[Statement from WHRC Deputy Director Max Holmes, on today’s NOAA report]

In Lent we are meant to reflect on sin and evil, repentance and forgiveness. Too often we think that this means our own sins; we don’t believe, or we cannot see, that sin and evil can be institutional or systematic. I was greedy in buying four boxes of Girl Scout cookies and only sharing two of the boxes. But perhaps hoarding potable water is a greater sin of greed — one that can cause the death of others.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians warns this community about participating in rituals and sacrifices to other gods. But, they say: the rituals to other gods provide more wine and and meat! That’s good, OK. Paul tells them just because they have been baptized and participate in the Eucharist, doesn’t mean they can no longer sin. It doesn’t give them a free pass to have follow other gods and remain faithful to the Way of Jesus. They must choose to be faithful to the Way of Love and God will help them to resist the temptations around them. I do believe Paul has a warning for us as well: it is not enough to be baptized and to attend church. We can still choose ignorance and and participate in the destruction of others.

The prophets of science in our age are yelling at us. Repent now! You cannot follow the road of destroying the earth and be faithful to the Way of Love.

In the gospel this morning, Jesus tells his followers that we never know when we will be called to answer for our transgressions. We should live our lives expecting that it could be any day. In the parable of the fig tree, I find hope and Good News. The fig tree is a symbol of nourishment, comforting shelter, and spiritual belief. But this one is dead. It bears no fruit and it has lost its sheltering leaves; it is rooted in hard, dry, unproductive land. The gardener asks the owner for mercy for this tree; a year to turn the tree around. He will give special care and nurturing. The Gospel calls us to a seek true repentance in the form taking action to save our own life-giving forces.

What is needed from us and our society is repentance — a change of heart, a transformation of belief — both spiritually and ecologically. We humans are poor stewards of the creation God has given us. We are poor nurturers of others who share our finite earth. Human greed, selfishness, pride and ignorance has placed all of humanity, innocent and guilty, in danger.

The parable of the fig tree tells us that the end-of-time can be postponed. Through our actions we can begin to save our world as the gardener will act to save the fig tree. Through our spiritual repentance we can live nourished, loved and in relationship with the God for whom we thirst. As Rachel Carson wrote in the 1960s:

We stand now where two roads diverge . . .the one ‘less traveled by’ offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our Earth. -Rachael Carson Silent Spring 1907-1964

And I would add, the salvation of our souls.

“Set us free O Lord, from the bondage of our sins.” — The Rev. Deacon Maureen Otwell, February 10, 2019

“Set us free O Lord, from the bondage of our sins.” When I first read the Collect for this week, I noted in my margin the question “Can we ever be free from sin?” I had read as the most important words “Free us from our sins.” But the Collect actually says “Free us from the bondage of our sins,” not from our sins. When you think about the difference of asking to be set free from bondage and to be set free from sin, there are very different implications. Humans cannot escape corruption; corruption is our nature, our very being. But through the presence of God, the chains that bind us to sin can be rattled, loosened and perhaps some even broken. We are asked in our Baptismal vows to act as God’s body in the world. How can we do that in such an unworthily state. Soren Kierkegaard has a prayer that express the unworthiness of humans to act as God’s body.

“We have our treasure in earthen vessels [meaning our bodies], but Thou, O Holy Spirit, when Thou livest in a human [sic: man], Thou livest in what is infinitely lower. Thou Spirit of Holiness, Thou livest in the midst of impurity and corruption; Thou Spirit of Wisdom, Thou livest in the midst of folly; Thou Spirit of Truth, Thou livest in one who is [sic: himself] deluded.” (Soren Kierkegaard 1813-1855, The Prayers of Soren Kierkegaard, as quoted on the website: The Edge of Enclosure, February 10, 2019.)

Our lessons for this morning stress both the human imperfection and the love God has for us nonetheless. They stress the hubris that we embody as we seek to discern God’s mission for us.

Our Christian religion or religious doctrine is full of paradox. We need to learn to live within that paradox. Our readings this morning begin with the vision of Isaiah and his call to witness and proclaim to the chosen people the Word of God. The description of Isaiah’s call is earthy, terrifying, and mysterious. It is a vision of what is behind the veil in the Temple — what is within the Holy of Holies. Isaiah uses words or metaphors that would mean something to those living in his time. The Lord’s robe filled all the space; it cannot be contained within the space but pushes out of the inner sanctuary. The door posts shook and the Temple was filled with smoke. Isaiah describes an overwhelming experience. An experience that can neither be contained in space or described in words. Can you imagine how old this description is? In all of the intervening years humans have never been able to describe the presence of God in a clearer way. God is overwhelming; God takes up more that all the space; God’s power intimidates and forces us to our knees in awe! Mystery surrounds us! This is the intersection of human and Divine.

And herein lies the paradox. Isaiah is overwhelmed by his unworthiness; his sinfulness. He cannot possibly do as God commands because he is so sin-filled. The unmediated presence of the Lord has caused Isaiah to see and fear his sinfulness. He sees himself as diminished and insignificant; corrupt and weak. But the Lord choses Isaiah as he is. He is freed from his guilt by the touch of a coal to his lips. And when God asks, “Whom shall I send?” I have to think that Isaiah looked around, realized he’s the only one having this experience — the only one hearing this invitation from God. He is the only one who can answer, maybe even reluctantly, “OK Lord, send me.”  Isaiah heard the words of the same psalm we heard this morning: “Though I walk in the midst to trouble, you keep me safe; you stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies; your right hand shall save me.” (Psalm 138)

Isaiah is going to need those words — promises made to God’s people. It isn’t the Good News that Isaiah is sent to witness; to proclaim to God’s people. God has told Isaiah that his words will fall on deaf ears. Isaiah must go knowing he cannot postpone the inevitable destruction of all but a remnant of the people of Israel. He is being sent to do an impossible, thankless task — to proclaim God’s word; speak the truth of what God desires; make known God’s will.  Many of us might have pleaded, “No, send him or her, Lord, not me” to this invitation. We know that often answering the call of God is not an easy path to travel.

The Isaiah call to witness and serve is repeated in Luke’s Gospel reading. This story marks a turning point in Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ life. Jesus was been traveling through Galilee; performing some miracles and preaching in some synagogues. His reputation as a miracle worker and preacher are spreading. Now is the time in Luke’s Gospel that he turns his attention to gathering companions for the journey to Jerusalem and his death.

His travels have brought him to the shores of Lake Gennesaret, also known as the Sea of Galilee. This is where our Gospel begins this morning. Jesus has just climbed aboard Simon’s boat to continue preaching to the crowd that has gathered along the shoreline. Simon and his crew are drying their nets after an unsuccessful fishing trip nearby. When Jesus finishes his teaching he tells Simon to take the boat out into deeper water and to drop their fishing nets once again. Of course, Simon objects and tells Jesus, calling him Master, that they have been fishing all night unsuccessfully. But, he and his crew do as Jesus asks.

What they catch in their nets is a super-abundance of fish. The nets cannot hold the quantity. The nets weigh so much that the weight threatens to turn over the boat and they need help from others in another boat to help pull in the fish. Now both boats are in danger of sinking. At this point Simon Peter experiences an epiphany and says to Jesus: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

The unexpected has happened. An experience that is not ordinary, not of this earth’s doing has broken through into a normal, ordinary day. The sea is no longer the sea these people know. The abundance of fish breaks the nets and brings chaos and danger to these people who have been fishing all their lives. Simon Peter recognizes the Divine and sees as Isaiah did, the sinfulness of his own life. Mea culpa, Lord, I am not worthy.

All of us are called through our Baptism to this intersection; a place where we encounter the Divine. We cannot escape it. We are told over and over that humans have intrinsic value to God. God has told us we are created in God’s image; we are the body through which the Spirit of God operates. Just as Isaiah was commissioned so are we. Just as Simon Peter was commissioned so are we. Mea culpa, Lord, I am not worthy.

We are tied to God through love. We are newly bound in love, no longer to sin but to God’s word — to God’s actions. Isaiah has been commanded to preach the will of God in spite of the deafness or indifference of those he encounters. Peter is given a path to follow. And we are given a mission to fulfill. Where is God asking us to drop our nets? Mea maxima culpa.

Epiphany 2 (C) – January 13, 2019 – – The Rev. Deacon Maureen Otwell

We have some truly lovely readings this morning. They are selected for this Sunday when we celebrate the Baptism of Christ. It’s an appropriate Sunday to ponder the many meanings of Jesus’ baptism and our own.

The reading from Isaiah is addressed to the second and third generations of those Israelites living in captivity in Babylon. Cyrus the Great has just proclaimed that the Jews will be free to return to Israel. Now, those who have been living in Babylon since the destruction of Jerusalem will need to make a choice to stay or to go. Whether to stay in the relative safety of the place they have established in Babylonian society or to return to the ruble of their homeland.

The prophet urges them to trust in the protection, love and presence of Yahweh. The prophet reminds them that God has called the people of Israel by name. God has told them over and over that they are God’s people.

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” [43: 2]

The journey back to the promised land may not be easy, but the chosen people can rely on the Divine love of Yahweh to be with them.

Although this covenant promise is important, Isaiah reminds the Israelites of an even more important part of their relationship with Yahweh. Isaiah states in the voice of Yahweh: “I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” Yahweh reminds the Israelites that they have a special, intimate relationship with God. Indeed this is the only time in the scriptures that Yahweh claims to love any human beings. “… you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you;….” These people were formed by God to do God’s work. To be chosen, to be formed by God, begins to take on deeper meaning in this part of Isaiah. Is this chosen-ness a good thing or a bad thing? Is it an honor or is it a burden?

Baptisms at St. Luke’s are joy-filled celebrations. We welcome the newly baptized one into our community. During the ritual we both renew our own baptismal vows and pledge to support the newly baptized grow into his/her Christian responsibilities.

Have you given much thought to the meaning of baptism? Have you considered what is happening during this ritual? Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. That’s what it says in our prayer book. Furthermore, it says that the bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble. That means the bond cannot be undone. The celebrant says these words, “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” God claims each of us in baptism as God’s own. Do you hear the echo of Yahweh’s claims in Isaiah: “You are mine; I have named you.” The bond is intimate and permanent.

There is so much symbolism going on in Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus. I can start with the obvious; Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River. The Jordan separates the promised land from the wilderness. It is the river the Israelites crossed to claim their place in the promised land. Symbolically water is seen as the source of life. Water continuously washes the fetus in the womb — purifying and cushioning the growing baby. Water is the essential element for life as we know it on this planet.

Our scriptures begin with the primordial waters over which the Spirit or breath of God moves. Genesis tells us that God created order out of a watery chaos. Water cleans away impurities. And water can change from liquid to solid and to vapor and can therefor be a metaphor for restoration, regeneration or transformation.

All of these water metaphors are present in our Gospel reading this morning.

John the Baptist is preaching a baptism of repentance and redemption. John is calling the people back to faithfulness to God so they can be ready when the messiah arrives. He urges the people to turn away from their complicity with the present corrupt society and to embrace the new realm of the coming messiah.

To symbolize their readiness for the new realm of God, John baptizes them in the cleansing waters of the Jordan. Jesus’ baptism is not a private affair. He has joined many others gathered on Jordan’s shores to hear John’s message and to repent and make himself ready. Jesus experiences baptism as fully human. However, Luke describes how Jesus experienced his baptism as a transformational event. Luke describes how the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove appeared above Jesus while Jesus was praying. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Can you hear the echo of Isaiah: “You are mine; I have named you.” God has formed and shaped Jesus for God’s purposes.

Luke doesn’t say that everyone around Jesus saw the dove or heard the voice of God. Jesus is given his mission privately. But Luke does claim that something notable happened. Some sign pointed to the presence of God. Luke says that “heaven opened” as Jesus prayed. There was a disturbance of some sort that accompanied the emergence of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — the appearance of the Triune God — and marked the emergence of the messiah into human time.

I am reminded of the psalm we read this morning, “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders….” This is the same Yahweh that swept across the waters of chaos to create order; the same Yahweh that gave comfort and courage to the God’s people to return to Jerusalem. This is the Yahweh who anoints his beloved Son at the Jordan. This is the God who claims us in our baptism.

Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In our baptism, we are marked for our own ministry as God’s agents or representatives. And here I return to my earlier question: Is to be claimed by God a blessing or a burden? For, I am reminded of Jesus’ words to the Zebedee brothers as recorded in Mark [10:38]. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

Our spiritual transformation at baptism requires much from us. We must renounce our complicity in our own corrupt, but comfortable society. We must seek the transformation of this world by stepping out of our comfort zone, embrace the wilderness places where we are unsure, awkward and even afraid. To travel to those paces where we can make mistakes and even fail; seeking always to encourage others to join us. We are promised only that our God loves us and will be present with us on our journey to ever-lasting love.

May the Lord give strength to God’s people!
May the Lord bless God’s people with peace! [Psalm 29: 11]


Epiphany Sunday (6th January 2018)

Steve Richards, a member of St. Luke’s – Minneapolis, gave this sermon on Epiphany Sunday.
“Eternal and everlasting God, preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”

There is a lot about going on a journey in today’s readings. Obviously, the Wise Men went on a journey. They followed a star, which led them to Jesus, the Messiah. That’s the obvious one, and I guess it’s expected that I focus on that journey today, seeing as we are celebrating Epiphany – and I will get to that journey – but there are also other journeys in today’s readings which I also want to highlight.

  1. The Nation of Israel went on a journey with God. The reading from Isaiah is a very hope-full vision of things to come: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you… Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isaiah 60:1, 3). However, what we need to keep in mind is that this hope-full vision of things to come was presented in the midst of some pretty bad times for Israel. For God’s message through Isaiah was spoken to a people who had seen their city and temple plundered and destroyed by the Babylonians. Their way of religion had been destroyed and the population decimated. Things got so bad for Israel during these times that some people ended up resorting to cannibalism; that’s how desperate things got. Therefore, Isaiah presents a pretty bold and powerful vision of hope when you consider the circumstances under which the people who heard this message were in.
  2. The Apostle Paul also went on a journey. He describes himself as “the very least of all the saints” (Ephesians 3:8). Paul went from persecutor of the church; one who stood by watching the stoning of Stephen, to someone who laid down his life to preach “the [good] news of the boundless riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). We might take Paul’s turn-around for granted, but we must realise that his transformation was so dramatic that people initially refused to believe it.

These are stories of hope and the Bible is full of them. That we should never give up! Also, that God brings about unexpected solutions to the problems we face.

For example, at the time Christ was born Israel was an occupied land; with the Romans essentially running the show. Whilst the Jews were relatively free to practice their faith, there was a definite felling amongst Jews that things were not how they should be. The Romans should not have been in charge – God should be in charge! Thus when Herod has people coming to him asking, “‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2), he understandably got concerned. Many people wanted things to be different. Many Jews wanted the Romans out. For example, the Pharisees were working to bring in God’s Kingdom by trying to live the best life they could. The time was ripe for God to do something new… there was hope that when the Messiah would come that they would take back God’s land and establish God’s rule.

Page 1 of 3

But God did something unexpected. The Messiah did come, but not in a display of Divine power from heaven. Instead, the Messiah was born. Jesus, a baby, vulnerable, entirely dependent on his mother for milk and sustenance. Dependent on the love and devotion of his parents to keep him safe and warm: The Messiah was born…

The other day I read a passage in Matthew 3 where John says to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for

Abraham” (3:7-9). I was really struck by those words, “out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham”. God could, if God chose, instantly bring about all the things God wants, but God doesn’t tend to do that. It’s not God’s way to “snap the Divine fingers” to get people to come to faith. Instead, God takes people on a journey… the Messiah was born, and he “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.” (Luke 2:52). God’s work in us is slow and patient. Our faith has been nurtured; carefully tended and cultivated to bring fruit.

  • What brought you here?
  • What journey have you been on with God?
  • What journey are you going on with God?
  • Think about those people who have been involved in bringing you to Christ; in bringing you into this space, with us all, and give God thanks: “Eternal God, thank you for the people you have used to encourage and strengthen me”

    When I reflect on all the twists and turns that needed to happen in my life in order for me to be here today, I am amazed that I am, but like the Wise Men I followed signs that led me to Christ. That I am here is entirely a work of God in my life. Nothing in me, in my inner being, led me to Christ…

    What should be our response to this? Again, we can draw two things from the readings.

1. We praise God. The wise men brought gifts, knelt down, and paid homage to Christ (Matthew 2:10). Isaiah tells God’s people to “proclaim the praise of the Lord” (60:6). We are to live in gratitude for the salvation we have received. Elsewhere in Ephesians Paul says we have been “chosen” to be in Christ (1:11). What an amazing thought that we are here because we have been been chosen by God. This means that nothing in my life, in my journey, has been wasted; and that we are here for a purpose.

• Let us praise God for bringing us into the life Christ gives: “Eternal God, thank you for all you have done in my life to bring me to faith in Christ”.

Page 2 of 3

2. And when we speak of purpose, what is our purpose for being here? In a broken world where there is so much anger, resentment, violence, pain and suffering we have experienced and know the joy, hope, and life that Christ brings, and we are called to be those who proclaim and work for God’s Justice on earth. The Psalmist prays that God would fill him with such a sense of Justice that “He shall defend the needy among the people; he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72:4). Paul writes that “through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known” (Ephesians 3:10). James says that “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (1:14).

• Let us ask God to make us peacemakers, to work for Justice. Let us commit ourselves to spreading the love of God in the world.

It’s easy to drop our head when things get tough in our life and in the world, but we have been chosen by God to proclaim the Gospel – God’s Good News; and what is this “Good News” we are to proclaim. It is nothing less than the Saviour has come; that we do not live in a world lacking hope, but one that is hope-full. As Isaiah reminds us:

“For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you… Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together,

they come to you…
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice” (Isaiah 60:4-5)

That we are gathered here is proof that we have not been rejected by God. That we are gathered here is proof that our Saviour has come.
Our King is here!
The Messiah is here!

Christ is with us! Hallelujah! Amen!