Trinity in Community

Originally posted on May 31, 2016

This is the sermon I presented for 22 May 2016 – Trinity Sunday.

The readings for this Sunday follow the sermon.

Listen to this sermon here.

I noticed something interesting in our lessons for today.

In every one of our lessons, the congregation, the community of believers is being addressed.

In our reading from Isaiah, Wisdom is speaking,

” To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.”

Wisdom is not speaking to an individual person, she speaks to all of us, to all that live.

In our reading from Romans, the Apostle Paul is speaking to everyone who lives in Rome. In Romans chapter 1 verse 7

” To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints”

Paul goes on to list all the people in Rome he is speaking to,
Jews and Gentiles, Barbarians, and Greeks.
The congregation of believers,
the entire Christian community.

In our reading from the gospel of John, Jesus is speaking to his disciples, and through them to all of us who are here today. Jesus is talking about how the spirit of truth, the holy spirit, who will speak to us individually, however, Jesus is addressing this message to the group,
to the congregation,
to the people who will become the Christian community.

When I was growing up, I thought of my relationship to God as that of a one-on-one personal relationship. My understanding of what it was to be a Christian was that it only involved Jesus Christ and myself. That if I believed in Jesus, and God our Father and Creator, that I was a Christian. That I would be guided by the Holy Spirit in prayer. But look at what Paul wrote to the Romans in our reading for today.

we are justified by faith
we have peace with God
we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand

Paul does not use I anywhere in this passage, because he is speaking about and to his brothers and sisters in Christ, the Christian community.

What I had not understood for so many years was how important the Christian community, the community of believers, is in our relationship with our Creator and God. All the theology I’ve been studying in the past several years has stressed that the surest way for a Christian to lose their way is for them to spend too much time by themselves.

Even the people that you would think were all on their own, like the holy hermits of the desert, or contemplative Christians: our brothers and sisters in abbeys and monasteries, live in community.

To become a Christian, all we need to do is to believe in the risen Christ, who was sent by the Lord God our Father and Creator. But to really live in Christ as a Christian, we are called to do more.
To study scripture,
to pray for understanding,
to listen in stillness for that quiet voice of the spirit of God,

And there is yet another thing that keeps us on the right path:
For our own Christian formation we should also live in a community with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is in the community that those insights we gain from our study and prayer and contemplation can be tested.
It is the community that grounds us and can help us when we let either our imagination or our fears get the better of us.
It is our brothers and sisters who mirror our beliefs and actions back to us, so that we are able to see ourselves as we are.

It is easy for me preach about community, but it is sometimes incredibly hard to live in community. Especially when that community is helping us to see our own faults. Is it not those people who are most like us, who irritate us the most?

(pause)

So what does all this have to do with the holy Trinity?

The last time I was scheduled to preach on Trinity Sunday two years ago, I was given this book by my mother-in-law, “What are they saying about the Trinity”, by Fr. Joseph Bracken. Fr. Bracken was a Jesuit priest on the faculty at Xavier University and he also preached at my wife Darlene’s church, St. Dismas in Waukegan, while she was growing up. By the time I received this book, I had already written my sermon, so I just put it aside.

This year, I was assigned Trinity Sunday again, so I finally read and studied Fr. Bracken’s book. I was astonished to find that among the more recent theories about the nature of the holy Trinity, many modern theologians are discussing the interactions between God’s persons as a community. That the experience of God in three persons by the first Christians has lead to a new understanding, a new modern philosophical realization of God as a community. Here is a quotation from one of these modern theologians, Juan Luis Segundo also of the Society of Jesus from his book “Our Idea of God”.

“For, as long as God has thus been conceived as a being totally independent of his creatures, human beings have tended ……, to imitate God in seeking their own self-fulfillment in terms of self-sufficiency and independence of others. If, however, God is understood to be a society of three persons who are sympathetically involved with men and women in history, then human beings will perhaps recognize more readily that they too have a basically social orientation, that the perfection of their nature lies in interdependence with others for the achievement of common goals, not in some unattainable ideal of independence and self-sufficiency.”

The perfection of our nature, lies in our interdependence with others.

That independent, self-sufficiency is unattainable and unrealistic.

That, perhaps, our belief in the holy Trinity, our God as a community of persons, should make us think, should make us aware, of how much we depend on other people.

That we do not have to go it alone.
That God created us to live in community with each other.

When we realize that our strength comes through cooperation;
with our neighbors,
with our family and friends,
with our brothers and sisters in the church.

It is truly wonderful that we continue to find new insights in the most holy Trinity.

The Spirit of truth continues to speak to us.

It is just as Jesus said in our gospel reading.

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.

Amen.

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
“To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth–
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.”

Romans 5:1-5

Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

John 16:12-15

Jesus said to the disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

Trinity Sunday

Originally posted on June 16, 2014

I was privileged to give the sermon at my church for Trinity Sunday.

The readings are at the bottom of the post.

I wrote three completely different versions of this sermon for this Trinity Sunday.

The less said about the first version of this sermon the better.

The second version of this sermon was all about paradox and mystery, it mentioned Lady Gaga, and the building of the Pyramids of Egypt – but after I read it to my wife Darlene – she said that’s great, but what does that have to do with the Trinity?

Nothing gets past Darlene.

Those of us who grew up in the Christian church learn our basic theology along with everything else. I don’t remember when I learned the word ‘rutabaga’. While still very young, I’m pretty sure I knew that it was something that you could eat – that is if you were hungry enough – but I really did not know what it was. Later on as you grow up you fill in the details. The Trinity is another word and concept that I absorbed as a child – learning what it was about from the context of how and when it was used.

The Trinity is something to do with God.

The Trinity is mysterious – The idea of the Trinity is a logical paradox.

It turns out that the Trinity is not that complicated an idea, it can be stated very simply. In fact, we define and affirm our belief in the Most Holy Trinity every Sunday when we recite the Nicene creed with it’s three sections for the three persons of God.

How and why did the first Christians arrive at this understanding of the nature of God?

There is a latin phrase “omne trium perfectum” which means that everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete.

We human beings really like to group things into groups of threes.

The past, the present, the future.
The executive, the legislative, the judicial,
The poor, the rich, the middle class.
Heaven, Earth, and Hell.
Small, medium, and large – or for people who go to Starbucks (trademark): tall, grande, and venti.

Grouping objects and events into groups of threes was as natural for the first Christians as it is for us today. I believe the theology of Holy Trinity was inevitable from the experiences of the first Christian community – the Christians who had known Jesus Christ as a man.

These first Christians were for the most part Jews and Samaritans who were very familiar with the God of Abraham, Jacob, and Moses – God the Father, and Creator. In our lesson today from Genesis we are reminded of the traditional story of how God created the heavens and the earth. These first Christians’ view of God was that of a parent; rewarding them for good behavior, punishing them for bad behavior, helping them when they get into trouble. In one of the commentaries I read preparing for this sermon – I learned about something else God had done which I’d never noticed before.

From Genesis chapter 3 verse 21:

” And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them.”

Earlier in Chapter 3 of Genesis, we have the story of the fall of man and woman – the original disobedience to God. Adam and Eve while hiding from God had made some leaf aprons to cover themselves, and I had always thought that in the story of the fall, Adam and Eve were still wearing their leaf aprons as they were driven from the garden. I had never realized that after God had pronounced punishment – to the serpent, to Eve, and to Adam that God then took time to make clothes for Adam and Eve.

God the Creator of the Universe, and Chief Justice, then switches roles to God the Father who even when his children fall from His grace, still loves them and provides for them even as he sends them on their way into the world.

The first Christians were very familiar with God’s first Aspect in the Holy Trinity: Creator and Father. These early Christians had became a Christian community, because they came to know Jesus Christ as a man during his ministry.

Who did they think he was at first?

A prophet like the great prophets of old, like Elijah, or Moses.

Only some during his ministry seemed to recognize his divinity – like John the Baptist, or the Samaritan woman at the well, or the Centurion who commanded the detachment of soldiers at the Crucifixion.

Even after all the miracles, and signs, the disciples of Jesus were definitely still in the dark as to his divine nature, the Word made flesh, at the Last Supper. What a difference we see in the Apostles between the time Jesus was condemned and crucified and Jesus Christ’s Ascension into Heaven as related in our Gospel reading.

On the initial sightings of Jesus they are unbelieving, but later as they are given proofs that Jesus has actually risen, that having died Jesus is once again a living breathing man – most come to believe.

This first community in Christ had experienced the incarnation of God as a Man, a man as all men and women are meant to be, in full communion with everything that is good – one being with God. This first Christian community now had new stories of Jesus Christ, a personal savior and redeemer to add to their existing body of stories of God as Creator, and Father.

50 days after the Crucifixion, a group of about 120 believers in Jesus from all over the Jerusalem region had gathered together – it was the Jewish Feast of Weeks – to celebrate Moses receiving the law from God at mount Sinai. These 120 believers became the first Christians when the Spirit of God descended from heaven onto all of them like a rushing wind, causing them to hear the word of God in their own languages. The event we have come to know as Pentecost. The Holy Spirit came to everyone: Jew and Gentile, Men and Women, all those present, not just the original disciples. Only the disciples had been told by Jesus of the promise that he would send the gift of God’s spirit – although they had no idea what form it would take – so to everyone present it was a bewildering experience, and perhaps to many even a frightening one.

This shared experience of this Christian community in this event; this happening: the receiving of the Holy Spirit, along with their stories of Jesus Christ, their savior, and God the Father, I believe naturally developed into this first and greatest of Christian theological ideas – the Most Holy Trinity. The Holy Trinity was a natural response of ordinary people who had directly experienced extraordinary events. The Holy Trinity was not something that scholars invented, it wasn’t based on esoteric theories or some arcane analysis of Jesus’ words. The first Christians simply grouped these three ways of experiencing God – and formulated the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

I am grateful for the many scholars and theologians who have studied the Holy Trinity through the ages. I have only begun to scratch the surface of this massive body of scholarship. As I am only an amateur theologian, there are only two additional points about the Most Holy Trinity that I feel qualified to make.

As fallible, human beings, we must never embrace these ideas about the nature of God like the Holy Trinity so strongly that we raise them up like graven images and worship the ideas – the theology about God – rather than God Himself. These ideas, are just tools, created by imperfect men and women through centuries of prayer, and thought. These ideas, we might even call them theories, about God are to be used prayerfully, and in humility to bring us closer to God and to each other.

If we use them to exclude each other,
If we use them to condemn each other,
If we use them to, in any way, hurt our fellow men and women we are not living as Christians in the way that Jesus Christ taught us to live.

To make my second point about the Most Holy Trinity – please bear with me – I need to do a Trinitarian analysis of an ordinary person. There is only one person I know well enough to use as my example – myself.

I have three major roles in my family.

I am Doug, the father of Olivia, my daughter.
I am Doug, the son of John and Carol, my parents.
I am Doug, the husband of Darlene, my wife.

I have these three roles in my family – as one person – however, I am not completely defined by these three roles.

I am also Doug the systems engineer who works for Optionshop in Chicago.
I am also Doug the dyer of cloth.
I am also Doug who has many other interests, aspirations and dreams.

If this relational Trinitarian description of Doug the man is incomplete, how can any description of the Most Holy Trinity – that we fallible human beings are capable of making – completely describe the immensity, the perfection, the eternal, limitless goodness that is God?

There is a legend about a Theologian of the Church St. Augustine of Hippo.

St. Augustine spent 30 years working on his treatise De Trinitate [about the Holy Trinity] – he lived from 354-430 AD. This legend – which is not part of his official biography – has non-the-less circulated for hundreds of years.

Bishop Augustine of Hippo dressed in his episcopal robes was walking by the seashore, pondering with difficulty the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. He approached a small child running back and forth between the sea and a pool on the beach with a seashell full of seawater. Augustine asked the child what he was doing.

“Can’t you see?” said the child. “I’m emptying the sea into this pool!”

“You can’t empty the sea into this tiny pool.”, Augustine said.

The child replied, “I will sooner empty the sea into this pool than you will manage to get the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity into your head!”

Upon saying that, the child, who was an angel according to legend, quickly disappeared, leaving Augustine alone, with the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity.

God is too big, too powerful, too wise, for us to comprehend. Yet at the same time God is as personal as our fellow men and women we meet every day. To me, this is the true mystery of the Most Holy Trinity – how this immensely powerful being also is so immensely humble and respectful to we lowly, limited, human beings. Allowing us to make our own mistakes, always hoping that we will return to His fellowship, only providing His help to us when we ask Him, in Jesus’ name.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights– the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night– and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Matthew 28:16-20

The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Listening in Profound Silence

Originally posted on August 11, 2014
I was privileged to deliver the sermon at my church yesterday.
(Readings are below)

Listen to this sermon here.

It took me quite some time to discern the common thread in our readings today. But since we are in the season of Pentecost, I should have known that our readings would have something to do with prayer and being in communion with the Spirit of God. All of our readings this Sunday, present to us, examples of prayer and discernment with the Spirit; from several different points of view.

The most obvious example of prayer and discernment is in our Gospel reading from Matthew. A typical day in Jesus’ ministry on earth. After a long day of preaching and teaching, Jesus sends the people and his disciples away and secludes himself to pray. What could be a more typical a passage in any of the Gospels? But notice how long Jesus is praying in this passage – He prays through most of the night into the early morning. My impression is that Jesus often prayed into the early hours of the morning. It was probably the only time of day when he could be alone, when it was quiet; that time of stillness, to reflect and to allow the Spirit of God the time and space to speak to him.

Jesus shows us how important it is to have this time for prayer and reflection by His example.

We see something similar in our reading from first Kings. The prophet Elijah was fleeing for his life from King Ahab and especially Queen Jezebel. Elijah was the sole remaining priest and prophet in Israel, all the rest of the priests having been killed by their majesties Ahab and Jezebel. Elijah finds refuge in a cave high up on a mountain. He must have been relieved to have found this hiding place, this place of safety, this place to reflect, this place to pray, this place to wait and to discern what God wanted him to do next. Elijah is told that God is going to visit him just outside this cave on the mountain.

A mighty wind storm sweeps past. Elijah does not even go outside, because he knows that God is not in the mighty wind.

Then an earthquake shakes the mountain, again Elijah does not bother to go outside, because he knows that God is not in the earthquake.

A fire then sweeps over the mountainside, and again Elijah does not stir from his cave, because he knows that God is not in the fire.

Only when the sheer, profound silence settles over the mountain does Elijah get up and cover his head, as is the Jewish custom when in prayer, and go to the mouth of the cave because God is in that sheer, profound silence.

It is in this profound silence, when we are calm, when we have emptied our minds of our concerns and our worries, when our thoughts are quiet; that we may be able to hear the Spirit of God speaking to us.

What is our prayer life actually like?

Again from our gospel reading, we read that after Jesus was finished praying he walks across the water through a violent storm to where the disciples were struggling to keep their ship afloat. They see Jesus out in the storm, walking on the water – they hear him over the sound of the storm – and think they are seeing and hearing some sort of ghost across the water. Peter asks Jesus to command him to walk across the water, and Jesus calls to Peter to join him.

This passage about Peter crossing the water feels like many of my experiences with prayer. How often have I started to pray, to attempt to walk across that gulf that separates us from God – only to start to sink, to be distracted by

the violent storm that sometimes is the world around me,

the violent storm that sometimes is my own thoughts and fears,

and finally as I am going under I call out to be saved:

O God, make speed to save me!

O Lord, make haste to help me!

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me!

For 1500 years, Christians have prayed these three, simple, prayers to our Lord: to be saved, to be helped, and for Jesus Christ to show us His mercy.
As fallen human beings, I believe we all have these problems in prayer; I certainly do.

It seems that, most Christians since the time of the apostles have had these problems in prayer.

That is why, we must continually practice prayer, and through trail and error find out what works best for each one of us, at each stage of our lives; to help us in listening to the Spirit of God.

In all our examples of prayer, reflection, and discernment up to this point – we have concentrated on that journey of faith that we travel alone, in our personal relationship with the living God.

Paul in our reading from Romans, takes our discussion to the next level.

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?

What in the world is Paul talking about here? John Gill, the first Baptist theologian, in his commentary on Romans 10 verse 15 really helped me to understand the meaning of this passage.

Ordinary mission is of [people] to be pastors and teachers …. for whom Christ sends forth into such service, he bestows gifts on them, fitting them for it …. and it also includes a call unto it, which is …. by the Spirit of God ….. and the inclination of the heart to this good work which he forms; and which arises not from a vanity of mind, and a desire of popular applause, ….. but from a real concern for the good of souls, ….. being willing to deny themselves, and forsake all for Christ.

Paul’s 4 questions in our reading from Romans, are about how we are to call and select our ministers; our leaders and teachers in the community of Christ. Paul is laying the organizational groundwork for growing Christianity from a small group of believers to an organization – a Church. He is asking how we should listen for; and experience; the Spirit of God, when we believe we are being called to ministry in that larger Church organization.

It has been more than two years since I started my own discernment process. Feeling a call to ministry; I met with my discernment committee here at St. Martin’s and we feel that this call is to diaconate ministry in the Episcopal Church. I had no idea what discernment meant before I started this process. I thought that it would involve an objective, logical analysis of the needs of the greater church, the needs here at St. Martin’s, and how my skills and talents could be used to meet those needs. I was thinking about church ministry in terms of getting hired to do a job, or fill a position or role – as in a business.

I had (and still have) a great deal to learn about discernment!

However, I have learned what discernment is not.

Discernment is not about what you want.

Discernment is not about your talents.

Discernment is not about what the church needs.

Discernment is about listening to the Holy Spirit and letting God direct you to where you should be.

Discernment does not end after you are called to some ministry. Discernment continues. The proper place for you today may not be where God needs you next year.

As I started to understand what discernment is about, I was surprised by how familiar it turned out to be. It seems I have been in discernment all along, I just did not know what I was doing, and I have been using it for trivial things. All this time, in my work when I have been stuck on some network or programming problem. I clear my mind, to either not think about anything at all, or to think about something completely unrelated to my current problem. And then suddenly, from out of nowhere, I will receive an idea about how to approach that particular problem, or how to put together a solution. The artist waiting for inspiration, or the engineer waiting for that technical insight are in discernment. They are opening themselves; allowing their own divine nature to commune with the divine nature which is present in everything in the universe around us. When we are inspired, we manage; for just that brief instant to hear God’s voice, the Spirit of God, speaking to us.

I have found that in discerning what God wants me to do – I am discovering what I am capable of becoming:

I am learning who I am.

God as our Father and Creator, knows us far better that we know ourselves.

It is a startling and humbling experience to be 51 years old and to be finally learning who I am.

I’d like leave you with this thought.

Discernment is for Everyone.

Not just those people, who are the clergy.

Not just those people, who are on the vestry.

Not just those people, who are being called to ministry.

Not just those people, who are working on revising our mission or vision statement.

Everyone.

We should all be trying to be present and aware of God’s spirit speaking to us in our reflections, our thoughts, our feelings, and our prayers.

We should all be finding time, each day, to listen to that sheer, profound silence; allowing the Spirit of God the time and space in our lives, so that we may hear the quiet voice of God.

1 Kings 19:9-18

At Horeb, the mount of God, Elijah came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

Romans 10:5-15

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say?

“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart”

(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Matthew 14:22-33

Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Paradox

Originally posted on October 24, 2016
I was privileged to preach at my church yesterday.
The readings for today are at the bottom of this post.

Listen to this sermon here.

I really like the parable from the gospel reading for today.

I like it because it contains several paradoxes, depending on how you approach it as a story. One of the definitions of paradox, from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary is:
a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true.

Paradox to me, represents ideas and situations that surprise us,
it is like a person surprising us – but only after we feel we know them,
it is a puzzle or problem that takes some time to work out.

It is from the paradoxes in our lives that we learn and grow.
How boring it would be, if everything just behaved exactly as we expect it too?
These paradoxical surprises are, for me, what makes life so interesting.

One paradox presented to us in the parable of the Pharisee and the the Tax Collector is that the religious man who does everything he can to live his life according to the law of Moses,
who fasts twice a week,
who tithes one tenth of his income,
who often prays in the temple,
is not as justified or forgiven in the sight of God as a Tax Collector who is genuinely remorseful and humble.

How can this be?
How could this Tax Collector,
a man who works for the local Roman authorities,
a man who some might think is a traitor to his own people,
just because he is humble,
and recognizes his own faults,
who beats his breast and pleads for forgiveness,
how could God – hear this man and forgive him?

But as Christians we know that God listens to everyone.
We know that God forgives everyone.

This is such a simple story, but it has such power.
It contains the living heart of the good news of Christ Jesus, that we,
no matter how good we try to be,
we all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

That we can be justified or forgiven,
that God is ready to grant us forgiveness, if we would just ask for it.

There are many paradoxes that contain a trick.
Sometimes a word or phrase,
sometimes the situation as it is presented, and this trick contains the paradox.

In this parable with the Pharisee and the Tax collector, the trick is that we are told the inner thoughts of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Something that we typically have no way of knowing.

The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.

Whereas the Tax Collector
standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

We all fall short in what we should be doing.
We all fall short of what we should be.

The biggest difference in God’s sight between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is that the Tax Collector is aware that he is a sinner,
the Pharisee thinks that he is good and that he does not need God’s forgiveness.
The Pharisee is not asking for forgiveness because he is unaware that he needs to do so.

Jesus addressed this parable to a particular audience:
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.

I believe, Jesus was addressing this parable to an audience of pharisees, the most religious of his fellow Jewish people. The word pharisee means ‘separated one’, the pharisees organized themselves into communities apart from both other Jewish people and gentiles. They felt that to truly practice their faith, they had to keep themselves separate from others.

If Jesus were telling this parable today, who would he be addressing?

This is not a parable for thieves and rogues.
The thieves and rogues of this world know that they have sinned against God and their neighbors, they know they are in trouble. If they pray, they pray for forgiveness, healing, and help for themselves.

Once again the surprising, paradoxical nature of this simple parable becomes apparent when we imagine Jesus telling this parable today.
This is a parable for church folk.
This is a parable for the faithful.
Jesus would probably be telling it to us.

How many of us are as faithful as the Pharisee in this story?
He fasts twice a week!
(point at my own stomach)
Maybe I should be fasting every week?

He tithes a tenth of his income!
Speaking for a moment as your Treasurer, during the Fall season, when we are asked to estimate what we can give back to God for next year.
I have got to say that this Pharisee is a better man than I am with regard to his support for his temple.

The Pharisee in this story is a fine, upright, church going man!
He represents the very best, most righteous among all mankind, just as the Tax Collector represents the thieves and the rogues.
This Pharisee also in the privacy of his mind, in his thoughts and prayers,
this good man the Pharisee despises his fellow men and women, and regards them with contempt.
Both of these men of the parable, like every one of us, has sinned, and fallen short of what we all should be.

According my favorite Science Fiction writer, Roger Zelazny, in his novel “Lord of Light”
A sermon is a warning
The warning in this sermon is very simple.
That we must always remember that we cannot save ourselves.
Our good works can make us better neighbors,
better parents,
better friends,
better members of our congregation,
and help us to spread the idea of the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

But, if we fool ourselves into believing that we are good, that we we don’t need God’s help and forgiveness,
Our self-righteousness,
our pride in ourselves,
our regard of others with contempt,
will separate us from God our Father, and this belief condemns us.
for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.

I believe, that it all begins with humility.
Practicing humility, helps us to keep our egos in check.
Humility helps us to be honest with ourselves, to know our limitations and our faults.
With our own faults firmly in mind, we may then pray to God for help, for strength, for support and guidance.

I will close with a paradox, the paradox of salvation.

Humility and honesty before our Creator helps us to remember that we have sinned.
Humility before Jesus the Christ, allows us to accept God’s grace of forgiveness, which is always available to us.
Humility helps us to maintain that inner silence necessary to hear the small quiet voice of the Spirit.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.

Amen.

Joel 2:23-32
O children of Zion, be glad
and rejoice in the Lord your God;
for he has given the early rain for your vindication,
he has poured down for you abundant rain,
the early and the later rain, as before.
The threshing floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
I will repay you for the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent against you.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again
be put to shame.
Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.
The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved;
for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape,
as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.

2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18
I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them!
But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.
The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Luke 18:9-14
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray,
one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves,
rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying,
`God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you,
this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

An Invitation to Dinner

Originally Posted on August 28, 2016
(I have made some minor edits from the original sermon for clarity)

I was privileged to give this sermon three years ago.
The readings are at the bottom of this post.

Listen to this sermon here.

In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus gets invited to a dinner party at someone’s house.

Not just any dinner – but the Sabbath meal.

Not just any house – but the house of a leader of the Pharisees. A leader among the most traditional and conservative of the priests in the city of Jerusalem.

Most of us who have had some success in our careers, get opportunities like this. We get invited to the Boss’ house, and we make polite conversation. We admire his or her home, we accept a seat at the table, we watch how much we drink. We don’t express our opinions too forcefully.

We just try to make a good impression.

Jesus does not act the way we usually do.

(pause)

Over the last two Sundays, our gospel readings have shown Jesus as the revolutionary, the firebrand, who came to bring fire to the earth!

Who said

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!

Who rebukes the leader of a synagogue with

You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?

All too often, when I see some problem with our country, or our community, I feel this outrage!

Something must be done about this right now!

I sometimes then waste my limited time and energy confronting people, rather than finding some way to work with them.

In our gospel readings of the past couple of weeks, Jesus seems to be feeling this outrage, this need for action.

But Jesus knows when to be forceful, and when to use a different approach.

A leader of the Pharisees invites Jesus, this wild, rough, Galilean prophet, the son of a carpenter from the countyside, invites this Jesus to his home for the Sabbath meal.

Jesus could have been loud and reactionary. He could have blamed the Pharisees present for many of the problems with their society. But, Jesus does not see the Pharisees as his adversaries.

Jesus ministered to everyone, even the Pharisees.

Everyone.

Can you imagine Jesus at this Sabbath dinner?

Jesus is the special guest, with all these high status religious leaders. He could claim if not the best seat, at least the second best seat at that table. Maybe, one of the Pharisees, has not gotten the word and has already claimed the seat reserved for Jesus. The other Pharisees are whispering to this man, you should move to another seat, we want Jesus to sit here so we can question and watch him closely.

Jesus is watching these men, with the love and regard he has for everyone.

Jesus then speaks,

When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

After Jesus said this, I wonder if there was a sudden rush for the seats at the foot of the table?

Jesus, once he has their attention, also gives them a bit of his revolutionary, kingdom of God stuff, which he addresses directly to the leader of the Pharisees who invited him to this dinner.

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.

I am sure, that Jesus’ tone was friendly, but this message is a rebuke, because this is exactly who the leader of the Pharisees had invited to this dinner.

But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

I wonder how the leader of the Pharisees received this message from Jesus?

It seems that Jesus was not invited to dinner again.

We do not see in the gospels that Jesus regularly attended the sabbath dinner at a Pharisee’s house.

How are we to spread the message of the good news of Christ Jesus?

How are we to move our society towards the kingdom of God?

(pause)

It is very easy for us to demonize people who do not agree with us. We disagree about some issue, and we label them as liberals or conservatives, progressives or libertarians. Once we have labeled them, they in turn label us. Their and our positions on issues harden as our hearts harden, so that even if we talk to one another, we are shouting slogans at each other, rather than listening to each other in the give and take of a conversation.

We start to see these people as our adversaries, as an obstacle to be overcome.

As I was writing this sermon, I remembered two people who lived lives of protest. Who creatively and courageously worked to bring about the kingdom of God. Who also consciously and consistently refused to see the people who disagreed with them as adversaries or opponents to be overcome, but saw them as neighbors, friends and collaborators who had not yet joined with them.

John Woolman was born in 1720 in the colony of New Jersey. As a young man he learned how to tailor clothes, and how to run a business. He was a Quaker, and came to a personal realization that slavery was wrong, and that he must do something about it.

With the support of his local Society of Friends meeting, he traveled to Quaker and other church meetings throughout New England for over 30 years, speaking against slavery, asking everyone who owned slaves to free them. In 1772 he traveled to England presenting the case to end slavery to the Yearly meeting of British Quakers. This one man, working throughout his life to convince his fellow Quakers to end slavery, led to the Quakers getting slavery abolished in Pennsylvania in 1790. Converting people who owned slaves on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line to give up the institution of slavery; convincing them to free their slaves by talking to them one on one.

Mahatma Ghandi was the other person who came to my mind as someone who creatively and courageously protested British rule, seeking freedom for the people of India.

Ghandi felt very strongly in the worth of every person he met. So when he was invited to a gathering where there was a servant present waiting on himself and the other guests. He would take the serving tray from the servant, thank them, and serve the other guests himself. Ghandi would do this at meetings with Indian leaders to remind them that the people were not protesting just for the Indian leaders to replace the British ones. But that those Indian leaders should see themselves as public servants of a free India. Ghandi’s act of service to others is a great example of a personal act of protest and awareness.

Before we protest, before we work to change anyone elses’ opinions on the great issues of our day,
we have our own inner work to do.
In our hearts and in our minds, we should know that these people, our neighbors,
who disagree with us,
who we are protesting,
who we are confronting, are not our adversaries.

These people are our brothers and sisters.
We are all the children of God, our Father and Creator.

We should strive to strike that balance, as Jesus did, delivering our message of protest to the powerful, in a creative way.

With the resolve of John Woolman, pleading for the dignity of all people for over 30 years; never giving in or giving up.
With the moral force and firmness of our own conduct and example as Mahatma Ghandi did throughout his life.
Courageously seeking to convert,
always seeking to speak to our common humanity.
Always listening to that small, still voice of the spirit.

Jeremiah 2:4-13
Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the Lord:
What wrong did your ancestors find in me
that they went far from me,
and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?
They did not say, “Where is the Lord
who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
in a land that no one passes through,
where no one lives?”
I brought you into a plentiful land
to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
and made my heritage an abomination.
The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?”
Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
the prophets prophesied by Baal,
and went after things that do not profit.
Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord,
and I accuse your children’s children.
Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
send to Kedar and examine with care;
see if there has ever been such a thing.
Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
says the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
that can hold no water.

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.
Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence,
“The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?”
Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Luke 14:1, 7-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”