All posts by mcharlto

Mother Susan’s Sermon for 9-20-2020

Sermon 9 20 20

The author Garry Wills once referred to St. Jerome as the Grump of Bethlehem. Well, if Jerome was the Grump of Bethlehem, Jonah was the Crank of Nineveh. They were both so sure of their rightness and their opinions… they argued with God! They sneered at God! They were the Archie Bunker’s of the ancient world.

And yet I love the story of Jonah! It’s not about a whale… It’s about a very successful prophet who saved an entire city, even though he thought they didn’t deserve it. Jonah made a difference in spite of himself! He did what God wanted him to do and got the Ninivans to repent.  But that wasn’t good enough for him. Oh-noooo! He didn’t want the Ninivans to be delivered from the hell-fire and damnation of God!  He wanted God’s righteous anger to rain down on them. How dare they repent! How dare they do what God asked! How dare God grant them forgiveness!  

What a grump!

Jonah is the perfect example of someone who would cheerfully cut off his own nose to spite his face. He actually begged God to take his life if God wasn’t going to punish the people of Nineveh.

And wouldn’t you know it? Jonah just knew that God would be merciful to the people of Nineveh. Gahhhh! How dare God be merciful! They deserved to be punished! And so — here’s Jonah’s logic — He showed them! And he showed God! Jonah punished himself! By sitting outside in the beating sun! “If those people are going to be allowed to live, well – well – I’d rather be dead!” Yep! All the logic of a three year old’s tantrum. 

When we’re kids in Sunday School, we hear about Jonah being swallowed by a whale, but what is God really teaching there? Not just “Don’t run away from God. We can’t avoid God.” No, God is teaching that God has many ways to teach us all lessons. And some of those ways we might not agree with. But God is God, and we’re not. We may not agree with God’s generosity with others, but I bet we’re pretty willing to accept that generosity for ourselves. 

We can count on God. No matter how bull-headed we are, God will always decide in favor of love. Whether we approve or not. It’s shocking, I know, but God does not require our approval.

The Apostle Paul also had a healthy capacity for crankiness. I think I’ve mentioned before that it is interesting to note that on his major journeys across the Roman world, nobody ever went with Paul twice. I get the distinct impression that Paul wasn’t the easiest person to live with. He was clearly brilliant, with an almost fevered brain that couldn’t stopworking. An interesting guy to be sure. But as a companion, I get the impression he could be exhausting. Probably never stopped talking. Probably had opinions on everything – and shared them with everyone! Oh, I have a feeling it took a lot of energy just to be with Paul!

In the first part of our reading from Phillippians, he gives the impression that the only reason he puts up with living among human beings is because they need him so much. Otherwise, he’d be only too happy to depart and join up with Jesus in heaven. He’s only sticking around for their sakes. (Well, that’s a bit much, don’t you think? Paul is able to think pretty highly of himself.) I’ll bet there were one or two members of the church at Phillippi who were willing to let him move on – however grateful they were for him.

But let’s not get wrapped up in Paul’s pride. Let’s think about what is really hard for us to understand. And that is the upside down economics of Jesus Christ. What is he teaching us here in our gospel? Can we understand it? He is so counter cultural and counter to everything we think of as logical. We work, we get paid. We work more, we get paid more.  We work less, and we don’t get paid as much. That makes sense, doesn’t it? We have systems for determining these things fairly. We have pay scales. 

God apparently doesn’t work with a pay scale. Apparently everyone gets paid the same – no matter their training – no matter how hard they work – no matter how much work they do. Wait a minute! That’s not right! God’s economy works in a whole different way! The person who was saved early on and the person who is saved just before the last trumpet sounds get the same salvation. Now wait a minute! That’s not fair! 

Isn’t it?

What is fair is what is up to Jesus Christ. Salvation is God’s gift to give.  Do any of us actually deserve it? Jesus gets to hand out salvation however he sees fit. Jesus gives and we choose or don’t choose to accept. It’s not up to us to judge who is worthy and who is not. Think of it this way. That’s not our problem! What a relief! One less thing to worry about. And that was the source of Jonah’s angst, wasn’t it? He was so busy judging – doing God’s job for him,  that he didn’t take the time to appreciate his own salvation.

I’ll never forget… I was called up for jury duty when we lived in California. And as they called out our names at the courthouse, one man stood up and explained to the judge that his faith forbade him to judge others. The judge sent him off. He got out of it! I think he was honestly telling the truth. And good for him! (Actually, I consider jury duty a civic responsibility, so I was happy to sit on the jury. It wasn’t an exciting case, but it was interesting.)

Jesus makes his and God’s roles clear. And our role clear as well. “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Hmmmmm?)

The bottom line is that it is not for us to judge what God is doing and why. God’s logic is God’s logic. God’s value system is God’s value system and yes, God’s value system is apparently different from ours.  Maybe we should pay attention to that.

Those who are esteemed and respected in this world (like the rich young ruler) may be frowned upon by God. The opposite is also true: those who are despised and rejected in this world may be more valued by God.  Don’t get caught up in the world’s way of ranking things; pay attention to what God values. That has lasting value. 

However God decides to work in the world, we need to trust that God works in the world with love. We can’t see the whole grand picture. That’s not our responsibility. It is our responsibility to love God and to love each other as much as we love ourselves. That should be enough. That’ll keep us busy. 

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Prayer for the Anniversary of 9-11

Prayer for the Anniversary of 9/11

O God, our hope and refuge,

in our distress we come to you.

Shock and horror of the tragic day have subsided,

replaced now with an emptiness,

a longing for an innocence lost.

We come remembering those who lost their lives

In New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania.

We are mindful of the sacrifice of public servants

who demonstrated the greatest love of all

by laying down their lives for others, most of whom they didn’t even know.

We commit their souls to your eternal care

and celebrate their gifts to a fallen humanity.

We come remembering

and we come in hope,

not in ourselves, but in you.

As foundations we once thought secure have been shaken and are shaken again

and again,

we are reminded of the illusion of security.

In commemorating this tragedy,

we give thanks for your presence among us

in our times of need and always.

We seek to worship you in Spirit and in truth,

you, our guide and our guardian.

Amen.

Mother susan’s sermon for 9-13-2020

Sermon for Sunday September 13

Forgiveness. The theme of our readings this Sunday is forgiveness – or coping with the inability to forgive. Ohhh, it sounds so simple, but it’s so hard to do.

Peter was really asking for it wasn’t he? “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” He might end up spending a whole day forgiving somebody! Well, he walked right into that one! Jesus answered him: “Not seven times, but I tell you, Seventy-seven times.” Well! I guess he told him! And us.

Jesus’ story of the slave whose debt was forgiven is telling, isn’t it? The forgiven slave couldn’t see himself in his fellow slave who owed him money in turn. He had no empathy for his fellow slave. He only saw as far as himself. That great source of knowledge, Wikipedia, defines empathy as “the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference. The ability to place oneself in another’s position.”

But it wasn’t just his lack of empathy that landed the slave in trouble. No, it was what it led to – his inability to forgive. We don’t actually need to have empathy to forgive. But it helps to make our act of forgiveness real – a teaching moment. Directly after the lesson he had been taught by his king, this slave failed to apply the lesson he had learned to himself. He couldn’t find it within himself to forgive as he had been forgiven. He was so puffed up and self-assured from his experience with his lord, (his last minute “save!) that he couldn’t offer the gift he had received to others. No. He lashed out, giving in to his worst instincts. And he suffered for that.

God’s love is freely given. We can never hope to earn it. No bartering with God. That isn’t how God’s love works.

And now, today, consider that this is the weekend following September 11, one of the darkest days in our country’s history. Let us ask ourselves: can we even consider forgiveness of those who attacked us? It’s almost too much to comprehend. How can God ask it of us?

And yet, the harrowing possibility of being asked to forgive what we consider unforgivable leads me to ask us to consider the other side of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is healthy – literally. Forgiveness means letting go. Forgiveness is good for you! To forgive is to unburden ourselves – it removes the weight, the lingering heaviness of anger. When we are advised to forgive and forget, that’s not just empty advice. It’s useful! It’s helpful! Forgiving and forgetting allows us to cast off the weight of a painful memory that holds us back and prevents us from moving on. Forgiving is freedom.

How many years did Joseph’s brothers live in fear and regret and self-loathing, waiting for their father to die and for Joseph to carry out his revenge on them? And all for nothing. Joseph knew. Joseph knew that as painful as it had been, God had worked through everything that had happened to him – for good, for the survival of the tribe of Abraham. Even more important, he knew that judging his brothers meant that he would be taking on the role of god, a role he was never meant to have. He knew: God is God and we’re not. God didn’t want him to judge his brothers. That wasn’t his place. They had clearly judged and punished themselves. Joseph found it in himself to trust God and to forgive his brothers. The apostle Paul is pretty clear on how people can get wrapped up in rules and regulations. I have a feeling he was well-trained in the rules and regulations of the temple. Our reading from his letter to the Romans make his opinion clear. We don’t need to waste our time indulging in criticism of each other. He advises church members to welcome those whose faith is weak, but not so they can all get involved with each other in quarrels over opinions over theology – or vegetarianism, for that matter. (How like seminary!) He reminds them that God has welcomed them all.

Something else that I’ve never thought of before: Paul advises us not to be critical of a fellow church member’s servant. Good advice, I’m sure, but I doubt we’re likely to run into that problem here at Good Shepherd.

Paul acknowledges that different people are going to have different opinions about things, even down to what time of day they prefer. And that’s OK! It’s more important to get along than to establish how right we are. It’s better to be flexible. But Jesus points that it is most important, whatever we do, whenever we do it, that we do all things in honor of Jesus.

In Paul’s time, people were used to the fact that there were slaves and servants and masters – very few independent people. We’re not used to that. We’re not used to hearing that it is God’s intent that we belong to God – as if we are God’s slaves or servants. Because that is who we are. God expects each one of us to understand that we are his.

What is important is that we live as if we are not our own person, but as if we belong to God, to Jesus. For when we die, we shall all stand before Jesus as equals with each other, and as his possessions. Equals who are always and only accountable to God.

And where our accountability to God serves us best is in our relationship with God, because he cares for us and loves us. When we fall short he is able and willing to forgive us. But most important, he is able and willing to help us forgive ourselves. And sometimes, that is the most difficult thing, isn’t it?

How do we forgive ourselves? By trusting in Jesus Christ to grant us forgiveness and hope and to help us, even in the face of our guilt, to help us move on. If you have ever felt truly and painfully guilty about something, you know how important this is. To be able to move on. To face your guilt and move beyond it, to face yourself and learn from whatever you have done and move on to a better version of yourself, to the new and improved you! That cannot happen without honestly forgiving ourselves.

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.

Lewis B. Smedes, author and theologian in the reform tradition

Sermon for September 6th, 2020

Sermon 9 6 20

Each of these Sundays is precious to me as they represent fewer and fewer times I get to meet with you all. God has blessed us with wonderful readings for our upcoming weekends. (Of course, they’re all wonderful, but I thank God that these are especially helpful at this time.)

Today we go from the sorrowful to the sublime.

Our first reading comes to us from the prophet Ezekiel. He was a man who lived and prophesied from exile. It’s hard for us, who live in a country whose borders have never been violated by conquerors, to imagine what being conquered is like. Ezekiel was taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar’s army, to live in captivity in Babylon. God chose an effective way to impress upon the people of Israel the evils of their way of life. God caused Babylon to not only conquer them but to entirely remove them from their promised land, which had been a gift from God and to allow the king of Babylon to set them up in exile, outside of their homeland, in captivity in Babylon. The exiles were not imprisoned, they were simply removed to exist elsewhere as non-citizens, non-people with no home.

When Babylon conquered, they didn’t necessarily slaughter the conquered people. No. They marched all the intelligentsia to a strange place and made them relocate there as refugees. They left the poor and uneducated behind to farm the land, barely survive, and send the produce back to Babylon. 

Ezekiel wrote as a man without a country, a man whose religious center, the temple, was razed to the ground. He had warned the people. They didn’t pay attention, and then he witnessed how everything he prophesied came to pass. 

Try to imagine what that was like – no home – no country – no center, a citizen of nowhere. And all God had asked was that they turn back, turn from their evil ways, and change. “Why will you die, O house of Israel?” God asked. By choice. It was their choice.

No wonder our psalm begs for teaching and understanding. “Incline my heart to your decrees and not to unjust gain.” “Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; give me life in your ways.” These are words that beg for the ability to discern and for the security of boundaries, of rules, the security of God. 

And then Paul, with his letter to the Romans, gives us the boundaries Jesus imposed with his love. The boundaries of love are more strong, more secure than any other boundaries. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” That is the only way to fulfill God’s law. “Love one another” is God’s basic rule – and the hardest rule.  We learn from Paul’s letter to the Romans that all of God’s laws come down to loving our neighbor, who is everyone, loving each other as much as we love ourselves.

And it’s really hard to do. We want to react to each other. But Jesus teaches us to love each other. Right in the moment when we feel self-defensive, to offer love. So hard to remember! Paul tells us to wake up! And face what Jesus’ laws really mean. Jesus’ laws are deceptively simple – and yes, hard to follow. He teaches us to love our neighbor, our neighbors, everybody, as much as we love ourselves.

Jesus asks us to treat the idealism of the Bible as practical instructions for daily life. Paul asks us to put on the armor of light, to put on Jesus Christ. This is hard stuff. Let’s face it. We don’t want to do this! We want to decide who we like and who we hate and we want to live our lives accordingly. 

Well, Jesus says we can’t. Will we face exile if we don’t change and follow the way of Jesus? Loving the world – everybody else – as much as we love ourselves? There is such a thing as spiritual exile, as finding oneself separate from God. And that is finding oneself in outer darkness – utter loneliness — true exile.

But not if we fulfill the law.  As Paul says, we know what time it is. It is now the moment for us to wake from sleep. “For salvation is nearer to us now then when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Jesus asks us to live honorably in the daylight, not in quarreling and jealousy. Putting on the armor of light means to put on Jesus Christ. He is our armor, all the protection we will ever need. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.

And then our gospel gives us practical instructions as to how to deal with our fellow members of our church if we sin against each other. Go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If you’re not listened to, take one or two others with you, so that every word can be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, then tell it to the church. If the member refuses to listen to the church, then they must be considered to be “as a Gentile and a tax collector,” in other words, outside of common decency and social acceptability. 

Then we get the extraordinary promise of prayer, which I must confess, I’ve never tested. “Truly I tell you if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” How many parish budgets could be balanced if we truly believed in that?! 

But that is followed by the greatest promise of all! And this is today’s most important lesson. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Here! With us! Now! Yes, even across the airways, we are gathered NOW in Jesus’ name. He’s with us. Wherever we are. What a promise! Consider that. Let us vow to Jesus to always gather in his name. And let us vow to ourselves that we will always be aware of his presence with us. Look across the room or next to you. Who do you see? See Jesus too – right there with you – right there beside you. He’s present and he’s real and he’s with us.  Save a seat for Jesus.

Invite him to be with you every time you gather.

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Mother Susan’s Sermon for 8/30/2020

Sermon 8 30 20

When I sit down to write a sermon, well, the first thing I do is I don’t sit down for long.  I read over the readings a few times – see what hits me. And then I pray, when I ask: what do you want me to do with this God? What do you want to say?

Then I go for a drive in my car, or walk the dog, or sit outside and ruminate, hoping I hear from God, think about the readings, and try out some ideas that occur to me, that just come to me. And then I start talking – out loud – trying ideas out, out loud. Never underestimate the value of chatting with the world, by yourself!

I think about what’s going on in the world, see if there are any connections there, and just basically give God a chance to plant some ideas, to give me a push. And I look for a fairly simple theme, an idea or ideas that pop out of the words that God has given to us. Yes, I do believe that God gives us our readings to work with and I work on my sermon from a basis of gratitude for those words.  I try to find a way that the words of our readings work together, even across the distances of the Old Testament to the New Testament, from the Psalm to the Gospel. Usually some sort of melody, some sort of train of thought begins to run through the readings for me.

What’s different about this Sunday is that I started to write about our Gospel, but then, as I went along, I realized that our Epistle from Romans was more suited to us at Good Shepherd at this time than our Gospel. So I’m focusing on Romans today.

Paul wrote the letter to the Romans. Paul’s ministry was to be  a missionary to the Gentiles and a church planter. He didn’t get to Jerusalem often. He was a tent-maker, in more ways than one, enclosing people within ideas, as if they were under a tent.

Paul is the star of the New Testament. No single figure, other than Christ, figures so large in the writing of the New Testament. And he’s so unlikely! According to a contemporary description of him, he was “small in size, bald-headed, bow-legged, muscular with eyebrows that met, rather long-nosed and yet, (surprisingly enough!) full of grace.” He sounds kind of funny-looking! From everything he wrote, we can deduce that he was well read, well-educated, incredibly intelligent, incredibly impatient, and yet very well-spoken.

But Paul was not out of Central Casting. He was unlikely. I can tell you – if you ever go to our Diocesan Convention, you will see a few priests who come straight out of Central Casting.  “Hi, it’s Grady down on Soundstage 7. I need a guy who looks like a priest, male, over 45, gray at least at the the temples, clean-shaven, and give him a vest. Naw, he doesn’t need to be able to talk. He just needs to look good.” Trust me. Every diocese has a few who come straight out of Central Casting. But not Paul. Paul was about as far from Central Casting as you can get. He was just unlikely.

Paul didn’t start out admiring Jesus. Paul was much better educated, clearly of  a higher class than Jesus. No, Paul started out actively fighting against the cult of Jesus Christ. When an unruly crowd decided to stone Stephen, Paul held their cloaks for them. Later, he was struck down and blinded by a blast of light as he journeyed to Damascus and he heard a voice ask him “Why do you persecute me?” The voice revealed itself to be the voice of Jesus and Paul, the Christian hater, was converted to Christianity. He planted at least 14 churches. Most of the letters of our New Testament were written by him to those churches.

Like this letter to the Romans. Paul’s letters were meant to educate and admonish and encourage these little congregations. They are truly wonderful, and sometimes it seems as if he wrote them breathlessly, he had so much to say – so much they needed to learn!

Paul was brilliant but clearly not lovable. He apparently had disagreements with those who traveled with him – nobody ever journeyed with him twice! But he clearly wanted the people of the churches he planted to love each other. He knew that is what would make them strong – not argument, not disagreement – but love.       Paul’s words of advice to his congregations are real and they come down to us as strong and practical as if they were written yesterday. Of course, his words demand perfection, a perfection I doubt he was equal to, but they give us something to work towards!

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” “Contribute to the needs of your members (he called them all saints), and extend hospitality to strangers.” Give to the people of your church who need it, and then reach out beyond your congregation! Support each other! He wasn’t forming social clubs. He was forming inreach and outreach ministries.

He encouraged them to empathize with each other. “Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” This is how they would become a congregation. “Live in harmony with one another.” He didn’t want the usual social boundaries of their lives to be observed in the church. “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”

Now this is hard — “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” He knew they would  always be very aware of each other! “Live peaceably with all.”

Then Paul really couldn’t avoid a little tender sarcasm, and my guess is he knew exactly who he was talking to:  “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

And then Paul advises them to do something that is entirely beyond our common sense. “‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they they are thirsty, give them something to drink;’ And finally and most direct, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Oh, these are hard things to do. Most of us simply can’t do them. But what if we could, if we can, now there’s a revolution. Paul was looking to change hearts and minds, to even go so far as to change what we think of as natural human behavior. He believed that the Word of God can transform us and bring about mental and spiritual revolution in each of us, so that we are governed by the grace of God, transforming every day, more and more into God’s creations, what we were always meant to be.

This is what Paul is teaching us today. And this is what we need to continue to learn and remind ourselves of as I leave you and as all of you return to the search process.

Mother Susan’s Sermon for August 23, 2020

Sermon 8 23 20

So Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples answer. “Ohhh, they say you’re all kinds of guys come back to life – John the Baptist, Elijah, maybe a prophet.”

“But who do YOU say that I am?” A hush. Of course, after a moment or two of silence, Simon Peter jumps right in and answers the question. Simon Peter was always the kid who had his hand up first. “Me, me, me! Call on me!”

But let’s not get into Simon Peter, as interesting as he is. Let’s get into the question. And then let’s get into us.

“But who do YOU say that I am?”

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? How would you answer that question? Who do we say Jesus is? Who do you say Jesus is?

It’s a really good question. But is it a question we are willing to answer? “Who do you say that I am?”  If we’re Christian, are we willing to take responsibility for answering that question? Are we even willing to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.” If Jesus were to stand in front of us today and ask us, “”Who do you say that I am?” would we be willing to respond? How would we answer?

If we say we’re Christian, can we say who we believe in is? How many of us would find it easier to say we believe in a political candidate than to say we believe in Jesus Christ?

First, who is this Jesus Christ? Do we know?

What comes to mind? When you hear the name “Jesus,” who do you see in your mind’s eye? There’s that usual picture found on Sunday School walls. He’s always wearing a pure white robe. How did it stay so clean?

There are many pictures of Jesus – many of them with blue eyes – that always gets me. He was a first century Jew! A semitic child of the Mediterranean! How was he supposed to have blue eyes? But as is usually the case, we tend see to Jesus in our own image. When I was a little kid, I used to think Jesus was Swedish. Everybody I knew was Swedish so I figured Jesus was too.

But these days we have much more interesting images of Jesus. There are pictures of him laughing, which I’m sure he did. But for some reason we don’t have medieval paintings of him laughing. Apparently laughter isn’t reverent enough. We have pictures of him as an emaciated medieval saint. Why? He was a carpenter, a tradesman in his early 30s by the time he died.  He knew what it meant to work hard with his hands.

Do you have a picture of Jesus in your mind’s eye? Maybe you don’t. Maybe Jesus is a vague figure you can’t quite grasp. Or maybe you don’t feel comfortable letting Jesus be close enough to you to imagine what he looked like. Maybe that’s uncomfortable for you.

But if you are someone who prays, who do you believe is listening? Who are you praying to? Jesus asked his disciples this question — and he asks us this question — who do we say that Jesus is?

Or does he ever come up in conversation?

I know there are Christians who live “removed” Christian lives, who are “Chreesters,” attending church at Christmas and Easter.  (And you know what? I’m happy to see them whenever they’re in church!)  But I am also acutely aware of what the “Chreesters” are missing out on.  Not just the community of the church, but the community of Jesus – Jesus as our friend – who loves us – each of us. He is the one who, whenever two or three of us are gathered together in his name, is with us.

I recall from my childhood years, my early years in Sunday School in the Baptist church, the teachings about accepting Jesus into my heart as my personal savior. We each had to testify to that, but I have to say the whole business of being born again and accepting Jesus into my heart as my personal savior never really connected with me. It was all somehow isolating – meant to be personal, but actually isolating – divorced from, separated from living with Jesus in Christian Community.

I believe that I have belonged to Jesus, been close to Jesus from the miraculous moment of my conception.  I believe that I have always been a child of God. I believe I have always been a member of the community of Christ, the family of Jesus. And you have too! We all have! All we ever have to do is say “YES!”

Nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Nothing can separate us from Jesus. We just need to remember that!

But then we come to “Who do you say that I am?”

Who do we say that Jesus is? Do we say anything about him?

Do we ever actually talk about Jesus? If we’re Christians, that shouldn’t be too hard to do.  If we call ourselves Christians, we probably should be talking about Jesus – on a regular basis. He should probably come up in conversation now and then. That’s not too much to expect.

“But, who do you say that I am?” Is that question laden with expectation? I think it is. But not heavy, onerous expectation. No. Honest expectation. If Jesus is behind all salvation, doesn’t he have the right to expect us to say we know him? That we know who he is? I think he does. How do we acknowledge him? How do you acknowledge him? Does this matter to you?

What is our answer to his question, “But who do you say that I am?”

Sermon for August 2, 2020

The Abraham family was an interesting and unusual clan. Most of the heroes and gods of the ancient world were larger than life – nothing like the everyday people of the ancient world. They were characters like Apollo and Zeus and Diana and Athena. They lived on mountaintops in grand palaces. They took almost no notice of humankind, unless it was for sex.

But the Abrahams were human. You could have met them at the grocery store. They made human mistakes. They succeeded as humans. They may have actually existed or at least were an accurate archetype for the first Jewish people. And Abraham walked and talked with his one God, like a friend.

Abraham and Sarah gave birth to Isaac. Isaac and Rebecca gave birth to the twins Esau and Jacob; Esau and Jacob fought with each other in the womb. Esau came out first, but Jacob followed immediately after, hanging on to Esau’s foot. They were twins who were totally unalike. For example, Esau loved the outdoors and hunting and Jacob was a homebody.

Once, when Esau returned from a hunting trip, he was famished. I guess he didn’t catch much! He smelled a stew Jacob was cooking. Esau asked Jacob to give him “some of that red stuff.” Jacob said, “Sure. Give me your birthright.” Esau couldn’t think any further than his stomach at the time, so he said “Fine! What is my birthright worth if I’m dying of hunger!?!” So he tossed his birthright away and got a bowl of stew for it. Shortly thereafter, Jacob wisely decided not to immediately claim the birthright but to put time and distance between himself and his brother. So he ran away to live with his maternal uncle, Laban.

On the way he dreamt (Jacob had great dreams!) of angels going up and down a ladder. I’m not sure how, but it foretold his success as a leader for his people. (People tended to become jealous of Jacob – for good reason!) He was clever. So was his uncle Laban. Both Laban and Jacob were both clever guys. Laban tricked Jacob into working 14 years for him. Jacob thought he was working to win Rebecca, but after 7 years, on his wedding night, Laban pulled a switcheroo and substituted his older daughter Leah.  So Jacob had to work another 7 years  for Rebecca. Then, when Jacob finished the second 7 years and got the daughter he wanted, he decided to leave (with his wives and his herds) and go back to his father Isaac, hoping he could face Esau, his brother. Jacob left Laban and returned home.

As Jacob neared home, he was afraid of the reception he might receive from Esau. He sent his family across the river ahead of him. Then he lay down alone to sleep and prepare for possible battle.  He had an eventful night. What happened that night!?! A wrestling match! I recently read a wonderful account of Jacob’s wrestling match with God or maybe it was with an angel. We are never told for sure. We are told he wrestled with a man – all night.  This account was written by Frederick Buechner. It’s from his book Son of Laughter. Jacob is speaking.

Our bodies were slippery with mud.  We were panting like beasts.  We could not see each other.  We spoke no words.  I did not know why we were fighting.  It was like fighting in a dream.

He outweighed me, he out-wrestled me, but he did not overpower me.  He did not overpower me until the moment came to overpower me.  When the moment came, I knew that he could have made it come whenever he wanted.  I knew that all through the night he had been waiting for that moment.  He had his knee under my hip.  The rest of his weight was on top of my hip.  Then the moment came, and he gave a fierce downward thrust.  I felt a fierce pain.

It was less a pain I felt than a pain I saw.  I saw it as light.  I saw the pain as a dazzling bird-shape of light.  The pain’s beak impaled me with light.  It blinded me with the light of its wings.  I knew I was crippled and done for.  I could do nothing but cling now.  I clung for dear life.  I clung for dear death.  My arms trussed him.  My legs locked him.  For the first time he spoke. “Let me go,” He said, “for the day is breaking.”

The words were more breath than sound. They scalded my neck where his mouth was touching.

I would not let him go for fear that the day would take him as the dark had given him.  It was my life I clung to.  My enemy was my life.  My life was my enemy.

“Bless me,” I said.  “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”  Even if his blessing meant death, I wanted it more than life.

He said, “Who are you?”

There was mud in my eyes, my ears and nostrils, my hair.  My name tasted of mud when I spoke it.

“Jacob,” I said.  “My name is Jacob.”

“It is Jacob no longer,” he said.  “Now you are Israel.  You have wrestled with God and with men.  You have prevailed.  That is the meaning of the name Israel.”

I was no longer Jacob.   I was no longer myself.  Israel was who I was.  The stranger had said it.  I tried to say it the way he had said it: Yees-rah-ail.  I tried to say the new name I was to the new self I was.  I could not see him.  I could see only the curve of his shoulders above me.  I saw the first glimmer of dawn on his shoulders like a wound.

I said, “What is your name?”  I could only whisper it.

“Why do you ask my name?”

We were both of us whispering.  He did not wait for my answer.  He blessed me as I had asked him.  I do not remember the words of his blessing or even if there were words.  I remember the blessing of his arms holding me and the blessing of his arms letting me go.  I remember as blessing the black shape of him against the rose-colored sky. I remember as blessing the one glimpse I had of his face.  It was more terrible than the face of dark, or of pain, or of terror.  It was the face of light.  No words can tell of it.  Silence cannot tell of it.  Sometimes I cannot believe that I saw it and lived but only that I dreamed I saw it.  Sometimes I believe I saw it and that I only dream I live.

The sun’s rim was just starting to show over the top of the gorge by the time I finally crossed the Jabbok.  Bands of gold fanned across the sky.  I staggered through the rocky shallows, one hip dipping deep with each new step and my head bobbing.  

It is the way I have walked ever since.

From that day to this I have moved through the world like a cripple with the new name the Face of light gave me that night by the river when he gave me his blessing and crippled me.                            

When he gave me his blessing… and crippled me.”

How often do we ask and expect God’s blessings on our terms? Are we willing to accept God’s blessings on God’s terms? Sometimes blessings are painful.

We are now going through a tough time – tough economically, tough emotionally, and tough for society.  Tough because we don’t know what’s going to happen next. Tough times. Things are changing and our world is being turned upside down. Our world WILL change.

Can we move through change with faith, in faith? Can we accept change as a blessing? Can we trust in God? Can we trust in God on God’s terms? Can we receive God’s blessings?

Sermon for July 12, 2020

Mother Susan’s Sermon 7 12 20

We got the following from Jim Wynkoop, who I think got it from his wife Maureen. The following is a  Readers’ Digest version of today’s gospel

“Someone threw some seeds on the ground. Some grew, the others didn’t. I wonder why?”

Thank goodness Carl didn’t read us that version of the gospel!  If we ever had any doubts, this gospel shows us how brilliantly Jesus could work a crowd. First, he knew the value of silence. He quietly stepped outside the house he was staying in and sat by the shore of the Sea of Galilee — apparently in silence – a center of silence in a crowd.  Then he stepped into a boat and sat there while the crowd assembled on the shore.  Jesus just sat there and looked at them and they looked at him. That’s how I envision the scene.  Hmmmmmmmm…?

Then he started telling them stories. Jesus’ parables were deceptively simple – sometimes just a few sentences long. They were what a writing instructor might call “elegant.” Just the story – no more – no less – let ‘em use their imaginations.  Storytelling is the oldest method of communication – and still the most effective.

People of all ages love stories. And Jesus’ parables are especially wonderful. What does he mean? What does he want us to learn? Does the story have more than one meaning? Are there layers of meaning? Even the simplest story can be multi-layered.

So Jesus began this parable with, “Listen!” That probably got their attention. Then he went on, “A sower went out to sow.” His listeners were everyday people, from the lower and middle classes. They all knew what sowers did. A sower walked along through a field, with a bag of seeds hanging from his or her waist, and reached into the bag and cast the seeds on the ground as they walked along. But this particular sower apparently walked through a variety of terrains and didn’t seem to care where he sowed his seeds.

Seeds that fell on his path were within easy access for birds. They were gobbled up.  Seeds that fell on rocky ground couldn’t sink into much soil and grow roots. They might grow quickly, but with no depth of soil, the sun scorched them and they withered away. Some seeds fell among thorny plants that choked them as they grew. But some of the seeds fell on good soil and they grew and brought forth grain. Then Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears listen!”

And Jesus explained what he was talking about. If someone hears God’s word but doesn’t understand it, the devil, the powers of darkness, will come and scatter it elsewhere. It hadn’t taken root. The listener didn’t understand it so it didn’t mean anything to the listener. If the word was sown on rocky ground, perhaps the listener received it joyfully, but they didn’t bother to think much about it so they weren’t able to nurture a root for the word.  So the word couldn’t endure and the listener fell away. The word that falls among thorns has fallen among those who pay more attention to worldly cares and the lure of wealth. The word is choked by these distractions and it can’t grow. But if the seed of the word falls on good soil, those who hear the word and work to understand it, then it grows, and it can bear good fruit.

Then Jesus looked out at his listeners on the shore. And he knew. He knew he didn’t need to ask THE QUESTION. They had gotten into the story and saw themselves as part of the story. They asked themselves THE QUESTION. I’ll bet you could have heard a fly fart. WHAT KIND OF SOIL AM I?

“Let anyone with ears to hear – Listen!”

Am I ignorant? Am I rocky ground? Am I thorny?

Am I empty soil? Or am I fertile ground, ready to receive? Am I willing to make the effort to understand the word?

And Jesus spoke of the rewards of understanding. He spoke of the joy of bearing fruit. It’s worth the work.

Maybe we can ask ourselves the same question. What sort of soil are we? Jesus’ words fall on us. What sort of soil are we? What can we grow?

This teaching moment next to the Sea of Galilee follows the Epistle in our readings. But I think it’s helpful to discuss the Epistle after the Gospel today. There is implied criticism for those who do not produce “fruit” in our gospel – for those who don’t do the work. But there is reassurance in our Epistle.

This is one of Paul’s more confusing writings. And I admit he has quite a few of them. You have to pick it apart. Paul reassures us that the law of the Spirit, of life in Christ, sets us free from any condemnation according to the earthly laws of sin and death, meaning the laws of the world. But once we belong to Christ, we belong to the world of the Spirit. Setting our minds on the Spirit means that the Spirit of Christ lives in us.

This may seem to be nothing more than a confusing reading to us, carrying on about Spirit and flesh and the difference between spirit and flesh, but it was crucially meaningful for the First Century Christian.

The First Century Christian lived in desperate fear, often in hiding. Everything in their world seemed to conspire against them, driving them underground. All they had to look forward to was persecution and horrible death.  And yet they hung in there! Paul promised them freedom in Christ. That’s what they looked forward to. He promised them peace and joy if they accepted the presence of the Spirit of Christ. This was how they persisted. Somehow, they could see beyond the pain of persecution. Somehow, they could know the life, peace and joy of the Spirit. It’s hard for us to imagine this as real, but to those who endured the real physical pain of every day as a First Century Christian,  this promise meant something. The presence of the Spirit meant something. It was a real and powerful part of their everyday lives!

“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells  in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” That promise was real. That promise is real. I hope and pray that none of us ever needs to know the reality of that promise as if we were First Century Christians in the midst of persecution, but know this – the promise is real, as real as the quiet man who sat in a boat offshore, telling quiet stories to everyday people about everyday life that drew them into knowing and believing in life in the Spirit.

Mother Susan’s Sermon July 5, 2020

Sermon  7 5 20

Well, I am charmed and grateful that any of you are tuned in the day after July 4! Thank you all for spending at least some of your July 4 weekend with your church. God bless you! And have a joyous Independence Day weekend!

And let us bless each other by showing care and love for each other. Wear masks! Maintain at least a six foot distance from each other, except for immediate family. Someday we’ll all be able to hug again. Just not now or in the near future. We are in an epidemic and as recent upsurges have shown, it must be taken seriously and that requires patience.

I must acknowledge that there are some people who have decided for WHATEVER(?!) reason to ignore the need for social distancing, to ignore the need to care for each other — who have decided to turn this into some sort of political issue. This nonsense reminds me of my great-grandfather John Findley. Years ago, As more and more people left their horses and buggies behind and bought cars, the need arose for traffic laws. Well, he wasn’t having it! He decided that no one could tell him what side of the road to drive on!  He decided that he would drive on whatever side of the road he wanted to! Whenever he wanted to! Freedom! It was all about his freedom. His individual freedom.  I think it was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, “Your freedom ends right where my nose begins.”

Anyway, eventually Grandpa Findley had to give up his keys — to his town’s everlasting relief.  Sometimes, to live on the same planet, we just need to agree to accommodate each other. It is God’s desire that we get along with each other and even – revolutionary idea here – learn to love each other. Let’s ask ourselves what God would have us do.

Meanwhile, let us rejoice in our opportunity this weekend to thank God for our corner of the world, our nation. And in that spirit I offer the following prayer for our country. This prayer is found on page 820 in our Book of Common Prayer. Let us pray.

“Almighty God, who has brought us to this good land for our heritage: we humbly beseech you that we may always prove ourselves to be a people who are mindful of your favor and glad to do your will. Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners.  Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way.  Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and among all the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, let our trust in you not fail; all this we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Amen.

And now let me quote from our Gospel for today. “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your soul.”

We have surely been living through a time of weariness and burden. And to hear Jesus’ promise of rest for our souls is so welcome and exactly what we need to hear these days. Amen!

The love story of Rebekah and Isaac in our Old Testament reading is also welcome these days. And I just want to take a moment to thank God for Abraham’s servant. This nameless man who was sent by Abraham to return to Abraham’s homeland, probably traveling between 500-600 miles to find Isaac a wife for his son from among Abraham’s own people.  Abraham clearly trusted this man, and he was right to do so — mainly because his servant trusted in God. And so, the trust moved right along because ultimately Rebekah trusted in God too. She brought along her maids to join with the servant for the return trip and they all traveled back to Isaac and Abraham in Canaan. And as far as we know Isaac and Rebekah were happy together. Thank God for the faithful servant!

And thank God for our beautiful reading from the Song of Solomon. We often hear it at weddings.

And then we come to our Gospel where Jesus invites the weary to come to him for comfort.

But before that Jesus spoke of the fickleness of those he often found himself preaching to. He knew that no matter what he said, somebody was going to complain about him. He knew it. He knew that in many ways those who received his Word were like children,  innocent, yet immature children. And he rejoiced in that! So-called sophisticated listeners can get all wrapped up in their own intellect. Sometimes our brains can get in our way.  Sometimes it’s best to take God’s Word just as you hear it. This is why the simple words of “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so” are so memorable and ring true no matter how intellectually “sophisticated” we may think we are.

Perhaps this 4th of July weekend calls for quiet reflection as we stay in and around our homes. Perhaps this holiday at this time doesn’t lend itself so much to gazing at bursts of beautiful light and color in the sky as it does to gazing at each other with gratitude for those we love, with gratitude for our church, the people of our church. Maybe we can’t see each other, but we know that we are together, loved by God and loving God together.

Let us rest assured this Independence Day that we can always find rest for our souls with Jesus no matter what is going on in the world.

“Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.”