Search Results for: exodus

Beyond Words, Christmas Day (III) – December 25, 2018


[RCL]: Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12); John 1:1-14

Words fail.

Stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Feel the wind rising off the canyon walls. See the light dappling in the crevices of the great chasm. Then try to describe this in words. For those who have stood there for themselves, your experience will bring back their own. But tell of feelings felt so deeply on the edge of the Grand Canyon to someone who has never been outside the confines of the cornfields of Iowa and words alone will fall flat.

A mother holds her newborn baby, seeing for the first time the child that has been growing in her womb. Those perfect hands touch her own. She counts and recounts the ten tiny toes—flesh of her flesh. We only have the power to evoke the faintest shadow of the vast ocean of emotions felt by the Virgin Mary as she held Jesus. Yes, words are powerful and can be life-changing, but some moments in life are beyond the power of language to contain.

One can craft tasty sentences that amuse, arouse, or anger. Yet language falls short of the breadth of human experience. Wittgenstein studied language deeply as an important philosopher of the last century and he found that words are not up to a task so simple as describing the aroma of a cup of coffee. He noted that if we can’t describe a cup of coffee, how much more difficult is it to portray God with words.

Yet portraying God with words is the task of scripture. Inspired by God, the Bible’s authors gave us moving passages of great depth of meaning, knowing that God is still beyond words. With soaring language, John’s Gospel begins with a poetic passage placing Jesus in eternal context:

“In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.”

On this Christmas Day, John takes us back to the beginning: the “In the beginning” of the Book of Genesis. He reminds us that the story of Jesus started before the world began, when the spirit of God hovered over the waters in creation as chaos swirled into order. There before the story of humanity was Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word of God creating the world.

John uses poetry to point to the triune God beyond all language. In doing so, John uses words laden with meaning. He calls Jesus the “Logos,” a word from Greek philosophy, which meant much more than the basic unit of a sentence. Logos is the idea or concept behind the words of language. The Logos is the eternal pattern, the perfect ideal the word tries to express. So, the word “square” means a shape equal on all sides. Even if we can never draw a perfect square, the word square still refers to that perfection. Jesus is that perfect Word, that Logos.

John also tells us that this perfect Word dwelled among us using a word that literally means “pitched a tent in our midst.” For Jews, this would naturally bring to mind the idea of the tent where God’s glory dwelt with Israel during the Exodus from Egypt. This was the same glory of God that dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. The poetic words, “God pitched his tent among us,” say that in the same way that the very glory of God present to the Hebrews in the Exodus and the Jews of the first century in the Temple is present in Jesus. In dwelling among us, however, Jesus is out among the people, rather than contained within the Temple.

In this poetic way, John pointed to so much more than he said. For the Temple was the nexus—the meeting place—of God and humanity on earth. Jesus becomes that place of connection between God and humanity. In Jesus, the glory of God became visible on earth.

This prologue then sets us up for all that follows. When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well and he accepts her, showing her the loving care others did not, we see the heart of God lived out on earth. Again and again, in John’s Gospel, we see signs that point to Jesus being God among us. In his life, as well as in his teaching, Jesus reveals more about God than we could learn otherwise.

I could go on showing these connections, but John’s Gospel does it so well in two verses. In verse 18, which is just beyond our reading for today, John writes, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Then at the end of chapter 20, John writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

While all the words in the world could not contain the Word made human in Jesus, the words John chose are written so that we might believe and have life. John knew God’s own glory had pitched his tent among us in a stable in Bethlehem. Then God gave the Holy Spirit as a first gift to those who come to believe. The Jesus who was the Word made flesh would always be present with those who heard John’s Gospel. This is why Christians have always emphasized reading scripture, as the words convey God’s own heart.

In sharing The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus Centered Life, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has offered this church patterns which have nourished Christians for centuries. Captured in the words Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, and Rest, are practices proven to move one over time toward a life more like Jesus. Learn is reflecting on Scripture each day, especially on Jesus’ life and teachings. There are many ways to live into this practice and each makes the eternal Word Jesus more present through the words of the Bible.

The same Holy Spirit who inspired John’s Gospel inspires you as you read and reflect on scripture. It is that inspiration for the reader as well as the author that makes the Bible more than words on a page.

The God whose presence dwelt in fullness in Jesus of Nazareth is also fully present in your heart and here in our worship in both Word and Sacrament. Jesus was present in our readings and as we come forward to receive the Eucharist, our triune God present in creation is here with you.

If you have never stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon, my words would fail to convey that experience. You may never be that mother first laying eyes on the child that has been forming inside her, so my words could fail to explain the depth of feeling. Words fail to convey the presence of God in your life, but God’s presence is every bit as real, and even more vital, than all those experiences in your life that are beyond words.

While words can and will fail, Jesus, the eternal Word of God, never fails. Amen.

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia and a member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church. Frank blogs on church development topics at loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for Christmas Day (III).

Living Bread, Pentecost 13 (B) – August 19, 2018

Proper 15


[RCL]: 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14; Psalm 111; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Even as Jesus is saying these words you can imagine some would-be disciples slipping to the back of the crowd before making a beeline home. Watching Jesus give sight to the blind and making the lame walk would have been amazing, but now he is not making any sense. Just beyond our reading for today, many of his disciples will say among themselves, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” The twelve will stick with Jesus, but many others will fall away. Knowing Jesus as a great teacher is one thing, but talking about your flesh as food and your blood as drink must have sounded like the rabbi had lost it.

Our lectionary, or pattern of readings for Sunday worship, has really slowed down this month. We are on our third out of four weeks in a row on a single chapter of John’s Gospel. It helps to recall this discourse follows Jesus’ feeding 5,000 people as the time for the Passover approaches. With that central Jewish feast in mind, Jesus referring to the bread that comes down from heaven makes more sense. Jesus is reinterpreting the story of the Passover and the Exodus through his own life and ministry.

Jesus has given them physical food but uses that to teach that he can give them spiritual food as well. He said, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” He wants those who are listening to him to not just eat some bread and fish and then go home to hunger again. He wants them to develop a spiritual hunger and thirst that he and only he can fill. And to teach this, Jesus uses the Passover story, which was about moving from slavery to freedom, to show how faith in him also moves his followers from death to life.

It is a spiritual lesson difficult to grasp. The words from this gospel are given in the first year of Jesus’ three years of ministry. John’s Gospel, with these Bread of Life passages coming so early in his ministry, makes clear what the other three Gospels only hint at—the Eucharist is not about Jesus’ sacrificial death alone. Our faith is not in Jesus’ death and resurrection alone, but in Jesus’ whole life from Bethlehem to Golgotha and beyond to an empty tomb in a garden and Jesus’ appearances to his disciples. Jesus’ whole life, rather than the events of the last days of his life, institutes the sacrament of communion.

Everything Jesus did—who Jesus was and how he acted—is part of God’s revelation to us. We are to take Jesus’ whole story and make it part of our story. God took Jesus’ whole life, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to us. We are to let that story of God’s love for us take us, bless us, break us, and give us back to the world.

This is something that happens in the liturgy as we enter the story. We don’t just listen to the words, “Take, eat,” but we actually get up—we come to the altar to actually take and eat the bread that has been broken and given. We enter the story and then we are called to make the whole story a part of our story.

Dom Gregory Dix in his work of scholarship on the Eucharist, The Shape of the Liturgy, wrote, “At the heart of it all is the eucharistic action, a thing of an absolute simplicity—the taking, blessing, breaking and giving of bread and the taking, blessing and giving of a cup of wine and water, as these were first done with their new meaning by a young Jew before and after supper with His friends on the night before He died….Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth.”

The communion that Jesus spoke of in John’s sixth chapter, describing himself as living bread, is something that has woven itself deeply into the human story. Think of all the places you have taken communion, and the people whom you have taken communion alongside—people still living that you don’t see anymore, people now long dead and seen only by God. Imagine all the places in which God has experienced this Eucharistic meal. Jesus is the Bread that Came Down from Heaven, whose presence sustains in every place and situation in which we find ourselves. It is no wonder that Jesus’ command to take, bless, break, and give is so obeyed.

We need this strengthening of the Body and Blood of Jesus encountered in the Eucharist; when we are apart from God, we find it easier and easier to remain apart from God and to rely on other, lesser answers to our deep hungers and thirsts—hungers and thirsts which only Jesus can satisfy. This is where the comparison to physical hunger and thirst helps us as we know that we need the nourishment of food and drink again and again. We may eat a good meal now, but we will need another tomorrow and one in between those two as well. In that same way, we need spiritual nourishment again and again.

There are two important components to the Christian walk. The first is coming to faith in Jesus, for which we have the sacraments of baptism and confirmation to mark us as Christ’s own forever. But coming to faith is just the first important step on what is to be a lifelong journey.

To continue the journey, to really progress in the life of faith, you need some practices in daily life that make this real. Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, is encouraging all Episcopalians to find the way right for them to consider seven practices for a Jesus-centered life. Central to these practices is worship. The other practices are to turn, learn, pray, bless, go, and rest. For this week, we are just focusing on worship and how Jesus feeds us in the Eucharist just as he promised in teaching, “I am the Bread of Life.” The full seven practices of The Way of Love can be found online at episcopalchurch.org/wayoflove.

[NOTE: This week’s and next week’s bulletin inserts provide more information about the Way of Love: Practices for Jesus-Centered Life] 

I know that I am preaching to the choir, as I am preaching to people who made their way to church this morning for the very Word and sacrament about which I am preaching. But I also know that from time to time, each of us can find ourselves feeling distanced from God. And so, this is a word to the wise that when that happens, know that staying away from the altar is not the way to find healing. Keep coming. Keep asking for and expecting the peace which Jesus alone can give. You need the nourishment you find here as much as you need something to eat and something to drink.

You are also in contact every day with others who have found themselves apart from church. This is the place where God can speak to their hearts through our readings and the sermon and the Spirit’s presence in them in worship. It is also the place where they can receive the bread and wine of communion and so experience Jesus’ very real, sustaining presence in an irreplaceable way: the nourishment you need for your hungry soul.

It is returning, again and again, week after week, for Jesus’ presence in Word and the sacrament of the Eucharist that we are conformed more and more to be like Jesus. And in those times in life when challenges arise and we are not sure we have what it takes, we return again to be sustained by Jesus’ presence. And if we begin to feel unworthy of God’s love, we know that we can always return to the altar, confess, and receive forgiveness. Then through the Christ’s presence in the sacrament, we are fed for the coming week. For Jesus gave us this bread so that we might live. Amen.

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He is also a member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church and serves on the Advisory Group on Church Planting. Frank blogs on church development topics at loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 13 (B).

To Be Transfigured, The Feast of the Transfiguration – August 6, 2018


[RCL]: Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36; Psalm 99 or 99:5-9

Today we’re celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration, so we get to hear, again, this familiar story. In fact, since we also hear the same story every year on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, this is probably one of the most frequent Gospel readings in the Church’s calendar. We get it a lot.

As a sort of prelude to the Transfiguration, I want to talk just a bit about hermeneutics—which is just a fancy name for how we go about approaching and interpreting the Bible. It’s important stuff, and we need to have some sense of a decent approach to the Bible, and especially to the Gospels, if we’re going to take them as seriously as they deserve.

Too often these days I keep running into the notion that what matters most about stories from the Bible, especially stories that are unusual—miracles, healings, or just plain peculiar stuff, like the Transfiguration—is that you believe it, that you think it really happened in a 21st century historical way. And that bothers me for a couple of reasons. First of all, it trivializes the faith and the Bible by turning them into a sort of believing contest. Second, it impoverishes these special stories by setting them apart from everything else and pretending that the most important thing about them is that they happened. That just won’t do.

Sure, there are all sorts of interesting textual and historical issues with stories like the Transfiguration—it may have been a post-Resurrection appearance that got misplaced in early manuscripts; it may be a theologically inspired parable that developed in the first century; and so on. But that’s not what matters most. At the same time, there is simply no reasonable doubt that Jesus did amazing things, and that life around him was very interesting and full of surprises. But that’s not what matters most, either. We all know that God can do special stuff.

These perplexing stories are really just exactly like the more ordinary stuff in the Gospels—things like Jesus’ teachings, his sayings about himself and about God and about the Kingdom of God. After all, the most important thing about, say, the Sermon on the Mount, or the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is not that Jesus actually said those specific words—after all, Matthew and Luke disagree about what those words are. The most important thing about them is what they mean—what they meant for the people, place, and time where they were said, and what they mean for us in this place and time.

It’s not enough just to believe the Bible (whatever that means); we are called to engage the struggle of trying to understand it—of trying to make it real and present for us in ways that matter to our lives and to our world. After all, the strong conviction that unusual things happened a long time ago in a place far, far away really doesn’t say anything at all about our lives now—no matter how hard we believe it. Such unexamined belief is also an easy way out; it’s a way of dismissing the significance of something by simply saying we believe it and stopping there.

Do keep this in mind when you read and when you hear people talk about the Bible.

On to the Transfiguration. This is a story about who Jesus is, and what it is like to follow Jesus, and mostly, it’s a story about hope, real hope. We know that the Church has taught from the very beginning that Jesus is fully a human being, and at the same time, fully divine. These days, with the safety of distance and, alas, of centuries of sugary art and decades of terrible movies, it is pretty easy to think of Jesus as being divine—but we can have trouble with how that fits in with his being fully human. (So, people worry about silly things like whether Jesus could speak English if he were pressed, or if, the week before the Last Supper, Jesus knew who would win the 2020 presidential election.)

But in his own lifetime, and during the lifetime of the apostles, there was no doubt about Jesus’ humanity. People saw him and talked with him and ate with him and watched him live the life of a man in first century Palestine. And, no, he didn’t glow in the dark or walk around looking all Hollywood goofy and godly. So, the Transfiguration was, in the first century, a story about the divinity of Jesus. It was there to remind people that this man they may have known and may have seen was more than just one more charismatic teacher. He was the beloved of God in a unique and powerful way. The full glory of the Father was part of who Jesus—this guy they knew—actually was. That’s one part of what the story means, a part that was probably more important in the first century than it is today.

Another part of what the story means is that Jesus trumps the Bible. Really. Moses symbolized the Law, the first five books of what we call the Old Testament, which was the only Bible the apostles or the early Church knew, and Elijah symbolized the Prophets, who made up pretty much the rest of that Bible. So, for the Law and the Prophets to be there, but to vanish, and then for the disciples to be told to listen to Jesus alone, this is one way of saying that, if you have to choose between the Law and the Prophets (the Bible of the day) or Jesus, you choose Jesus. There is a clear priority here—and while the point is not to ignore Moses or Elijah, it is to show who has pride of place. As Ephrem the Syrian, a fourth-century commentator says, “Moses and Elijah appeared beside [Jesus] so that they might know that he was Lord of the Prophets.” We need to remember that, too.

That part of the story was very important to the early Church, as it tried to figure out how to handle the Old Testament, and it’s a very important thing for us to remember, too. (By the way, that’s one reason Peter was not to build three booths—doing that would suggest that Jesus was only equal to the Law and the Prophets.)

A third part of what the story means was so obvious to the apostles and the early Church that they hardly noticed it—they knew it all along, down to their very bones. But it may be the most important part for us. This is the reality that who Jesus really is cannot be known from only one picture, from only one experience, no matter how intense and glorious, or from only one perspective. Coming to know Jesus is not an event, it is a journey. You can’t stop with just one “wow” and assume you’ve got it. Jesus left the mountain, still a mystery and a puzzle to the disciples, who were told not to blab about this partial insight into the Lord.

That’s because even the Transfiguration did not give enough light to see Jesus fully. To see him fully required the whole journey; it required walking the road ahead, all of that road. And it is only by making the whole of their journey with Jesus, a journey they did not anticipate and could not have imagined, a journey that led to Golgotha and beyond, it was only by doing this that they came to realize both who Jesus really was, and how confused and incomplete any attempt to pin him down to any one moment would be. They could no more point to the Transfiguration than they could to a sleeping friend or an executed criminal and say, “This is it, this is who he is, I’ve figured it all out.” That’s why the Gospels have lots and lots of stories and sayings. No single story or saying is enough—no single experience is enough—and no one can know the whole of who Jesus is and what he is about until that person has walked all of his or her entire journey with Jesus.

In fact, the whole Church cannot know fully who Jesus is until the whole Church has walked its entire journey with Jesus, a journey we are still walking, a journey that is far from over.

Again, that first generation of Christians knew that, back then. But we need to be especially mindful of this reality today. The one who stands transfigured before us today, and crucified on Good Friday, and raised on Easter, and who is with his Church forever, this one, Jesus himself, is still leading us along the bumpy road down the mountain—patiently putting up with our wrong turns, our stubborn blindness, and our failures to trust enough or to love enough. We cannot stop at any one place and say, “Here it is, we have it all nailed down” (that’s the other reason Peter could not build a dwelling for Jesus). As long as we are in the midst of the journey, Jesus has not set up a permanent address among us. We don’t know it all, and we pretend to do so at our peril.

The journey of faith, the journey of discovery, the journey of our lives and of the life and ministry of Jesus, these continue. And on that journey, Jesus is both our companion on the way, gradually revealing to us and to our generation who he is and who he will have us be, and at the same time, to use Peter’s words, he is for us “a lamp shining in a dark place,” in our dark places, and in the darkness of the world.

That is where our hope lies; that light will never fail us. No darkness will ever fully overcome us: and this journey of ours, a journey we share with all who are Christ’s, this journey will, at the end of the day, lead us safely home. To believe in the Transfiguration is not merely to talk about history—to believe in the Transfiguration is to dare our own journey with Jesus, and it is to embrace this hope.

The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as Rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.

Download the sermon for the Transfiguration.

Contentment, Pentecost 11 (B) – August 5, 2018

Proper 13


[RCL]: Exodus 16:2-4,9-15; Psalm 78:23-29; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

How do we know what is enough?

To any normal member of his kingdom, King David would have looked like a man with enough. And yet, King David was not content. He wanted things that were not his to have. He wanted Bathsheba, although she was married to someone else. He wanted the appearance of innocence, although he was guilty. He wanted the moral righteousness to condemn the evildoer in Nathan’s story, but found out he was the man. The Lord God lists the abundance given to David, but then levels this sentence: You weren’t content with my bounty. You added the sword. You needed to use the sword to be content? Okay, here comes the sword.

In our Gospel, Jesus says that the people follow him because he can feed them more bread, although he has more to offer. He wants them to find contentment in him. What is enough?

Before we come back to that question, let’s go on a journey. Maybe you remember journeys like this one, that sound like this: Are we there yet? I’m hungry! I’m thirsty! He’s bothering me! Why did I even have to come on this stupid trip? Why couldn’t you just leave me at home with my friends? When are we going to get there?

Sound familiar?

Perhaps there are families who do long distance drives in tranquility. Perhaps there are families that actually speak peaceably with one another on road trips without the aid of huge data plans and just sticking their faces down in their phones or tablets. Perhaps there are those among us who have not experienced or delivered this parental admonition: Don’t make me pull this car over.

If you are amongst those who have no experience of car trip discord, congratulations! If not, perhaps this next journey will sound familiar as well.

This one took place much longer ago than the childhood of anyone here today. And it’s much more serious than any family vacation. It’s the journey of the Israelites, recently delivered from slavery in Egypt. But the soundtrack is similar: When are we going to get there? I’m hot. I’m tired. I’m thirsty! I’m hungry! Why did I even have to come on this stupid trip? Why didn’t you just leave us back in Egypt?

In other words, the Israelites are whining. The Hebrew word is sometimes translated “murmur,” but it’s the same thing. And we all know how it sounds.

The Israelites have been out of Egypt for all of two months. They have been, fairly recently, delivered from a truly bad situation, an unjust situation, a miserable situation. They were slaves in Egypt. Without dignity, without self-determination, treated as property, they cried out to God. God heard them, delivered them from the Egyptians, brought them in safety to freedom. And now they are in that middle place, the wilderness: no longer in bondage to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, not yet in the promised land. They are fairly new at freedom and they are finding it a challenge.

The people are hungry, and they turn on Moses and Aaron, who are probably hot and tired and hungry too, and wishing the GPS weren’t sending them on such a roundabout route. (Really? Are you sure this is the road?)

The people whine, but more than the annoying sound of the whining, it’s the irrational content that is stunning. “Moses, did you bring us out here to starve us to death? If only we were back in Egypt! Sure, we were slaves there, abused, no better than pieces of property to the Egyptians, but at least they fed us! You don’t love us. Why did we even have to go on this stupid trip?”

Freedom is a challenge. For one thing, instead of just being told what to do all the time, they have to learn a new skill. Complaining they’ve got down cold. Now they have to learn to trust. They have to learn to trust God. They have to learn to open their eyes and hearts and learn a new way of being in the world. They have to learn how to live with contentment.

Now, they were right to be discontent with their old situation. We are never supposed to be content with injustice, with inhumane treatment of anyone. We are never supposed to be content with abuse, cooperation with evil. But here they were, free! But so far away from contentment. It’s like they carried their discontentment with them, dwelling within it like it’s a shelter, like it’s a tent.

That’s the thing about tents—they’re portable. So you can change your setting, your campsite, your whole surroundings and situation, and you can still be hauling around your same old tent. You can still be setting up your same old tent and crawling into your same old tent at night and waking up in your same old discontent, and wondering why things still look bleak and miserable.

Remember those old canvas tents some of us grew up with? The ones that got that musty smell and if you leaned up against them in the middle of the night, that’s where the moisture would come in? Or if it rained, the rain would find the low point on the canvas to come through, and you would wake up in the middle of the night, with water dripping on you from the ceiling? You are free to still be hauling around one of those old canvas tents if you want, but here’s good news: they make new ones now that don’t leak, that don’t smell musty, that are easier to set up and take down, and are lighter weight. But it’s up to you which kind of tent you want to use as your dwelling. Contentment or discontentment?

We aren’t so different from the Israelites, right? Ever stay in a bad situation because it’s easier to stay with the devil you know? Ever settle for less than you could be doing because, well, it’s not great, but it’s tough to make a change, and, truth be told, complaining about it is easier than changing?

The Israelites had just been brought through a huge change. And it was time to learn a new skill. Trust in God.

To feed them, God gave the Israelites the gift of manna, a fine flaky substance that appeared on the ground every morning. It was so peculiar, new, wondrous, that the people ask, “What is it?”—in Hebrew, it sounds like “Manna?” and the name sticks.

The food is wondrous not only because it appears overnight while they are asleep, in this barren place, out of nowhere – or solely out of the abundance of God – but it’s theirs with no work, no slave labor, just grace, here it is.

It is also wondrous because it has special built-in properties to make sure everyone gets enough. Just enough. They have to collect it each day. There’s exactly enough to go around. No more, no less. If they try to hoard it for the next day, it rots. The exception is on the Sabbath when the people aren’t supposed to do any work. On the day before the Sabbath, they can collect enough for the Sabbath too, and it will last.

Like all new things, it takes some practice. Some people hoard, and all they have to show for it is a bunch of moldy manna. Some people don’t collect enough for the Sabbath, and when the Sabbath comes, there’s no manna for them. Trust—says God, trust me—and follow my instructions—they’re trustworthy, too. Trust, listen to me and obey, and you can dwell in contentment.

In Jesus, God took the life of contentment one step further. Jesus was not just someone who gave physical bread, although feeding hungry people is one of the commands Jesus gives and one of the things his ministry on earth was about. He wasn’t content to just make sure people had full bellies and their physical needs met; Jesus came to be bread of life – the source for spiritual contentment as well, the source of joy and contentment in any situation, in plenty and in want, in easy times and in times of struggle and challenge. Don’t be content with physical stuff. Don’t try to find contentment with the things of this world that are here today and gone tomorrow. Seek God’s kingdom. Seek the food that endures for eternal life. Jesus offers himself, and walking with Jesus, feasting with Jesus, eating the bread he gives us, which is himself, we can know contentment wherever we find ourselves. Even in the midst of a desert. Even when provisions seem scarce or we don’t know exactly where the journey leads, Jesus will be our sustenance and guide if we let him. We can dwell in content. We can know what is enough, who is enough.

The Rev. Amy Richter, Ph.D., is an Appointed Missionary for the Episcopal Church, with Episcopal Volunteers in Mission. She and Joseph Pagano,her husband, will teach at the College of Transfiguration in Grahamstown, South Africa and visit several Provinces in Africa to work with our partners in the Galatians 6:2 (“Bear one another’s burdens”) project on theological education. She and Joe have a new book coming out in 2019 from Cascade Publishers, a collection of reflections by theologians, writers, and musicians on their experiences of worship in the Episcopal Church.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 11 (B).

To the End, Maundy Thursday – March 29, 2018

Maundy Thursday Sermon

[RCL]: Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

Jesus’ time is running short.

We are not strangers to the idea of a person’s last days of life.

Because we know that we will all die, we often find ways to think about both our own last days and the last days of those we love. We make movies about it—both funny movies and heart-wrenching ones. Sometimes, we sit at the bedsides of our loved ones as they slip away slowly. Other times, we are called to the emergency room in the middle of the night. But last days—and death—always find us eventually. That is why we understand the importance of a person’s last days on earth, and that is why Maundy Thursday can hit us in such interesting ways.

Because you see, we live in a world filled with death. We have all lost loved ones. Often, the memories that stick out most in our minds are things that happened right before the person died, whether they were taken from us suddenly or slowly. Sure, we also remember things besides their last days: we remember eating together, laughing together, intimate conversations, and things like that. We also remember, perhaps most clearly, things that happened right before they died.

Now Jesus, knowing that he is about to die, gathers his closest friends for a meal. These are some of the last memories his disciples will have of him before the crucifixion. Though they will remember other things about Jesus—traveling, laughing, and talking with him—they will remember these moments, perhaps, most strongly. What he says and does here will echo for them throughout their lives as they begin to build the Church we know today.

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

Jesus’ time is running short.

Yes, he will be resurrected, but Holy Week calls us to imagine ourselves in the places of the disciples, imagining for once that we do not know the ending. If death is not a reality, after all, Easter is no miracle, and Jesus is about to be put to death. Jesus’ time is running short.

What would you do if you knew that you were about to die?

What memories would you want to create, for yourself and your loved ones?

What would you do if you had not weeks or months, but mere hours before your death?

“Because he loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

It’s likely that most of us would try to be like Jesus in his last days before he was crucified. In our last week of life, most of us would be most concerned not with our “bucket lists,” but with our loved ones.

What would you do for those you love?

What would you want them to know, and how would you communicate those things?

Jesus’ time is running short, and the Gospel passage from John tells the story of his last night with them before he dies. It’s interesting to see how the Son of God chooses to spend his last hours before his death with those that he loves. What does he do? He shares a meal with them, he gives them some last instructions, and he gets up from the dinner table, lays aside his outer robe, and washes his disciples’ feet.

Jesus does exactly what many of us would do if we knew that we were spending our last few hours with our loved ones before our death. We would tell them things, yes. We might share a meal with them, like Jesus did. Perhaps above anything, we would touch them one last time.

We often forget how important our bodies are in our experience as human beings. We talk a lot about body and soul as if they are completely separate things in the world. When we consider our own loved ones, however, it’s likely that their personalities are hardly separate in our minds from their faces, the way they walk, the hand gestures they use so frequently, the way that they hug us, or even the way they smell.

In the last few hours before his death, Jesus spends his time eating and drinking with his disciples and washing their feet, impressing into their minds and their bodies the memory of him in an act of love.

Contrary to the typical Sunday school understanding of this story, the foot washing is not primarily about service. That’s part of it, but it’s only part of a much bigger picture. This becomes clear if you read the passages around this text. “He loved them to the end.” “Love another as I have loved you.” The foot washing is about Jesus’ love and his willingness to show that love, even if it means the vulnerability of washing his disciples’ dirty feet. Even if it means an arrest and a trial before Pilate. Even if it means death by execution on a Roman cross. The foot washing is the acting out of the Great Commandment that we hear today: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Though caring for a sick loved one or making dinner for a friend may be an act of service, we most commonly describe such acts as acts of love. So it is with the foot washing.

We can only imagine what the disciples felt. Humbled? Shocked? Awkward?

Peter speaks up: “Are you going to wash my feet? You will never wash my feet.”

We hear Peter’s objection, and it sounds a lot like most of ours would have been. He knows who Jesus is, and there’s no way that the Word of God made flesh is going to wash his feet.

Jesus doesn’t argue. He asks nothing of Peter or the other disciples but that they place themselves fully into his hands and trust that he knows what he’s doing. He tells Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Peter has no idea what Jesus is doing, but Jesus isn’t interested in telling Peter why he’s washing his feet. He’s just asking for Peter to trust him, to be vulnerable.

This is not just how foot washing works. This is often how God works, too.

We don’t always know what God is doing. God only asks us to trust, to be vulnerable, to believe that God loves us fiercely, and to receive God’s love—mind, heart, soul, and body.

What moments will the people in our lives remember when we are gone? What moments will we remember of those who die before us? Truly, we are all imperfect, and we can all sometimes be hard to live with, yet constantly, we are blessed to see, laugh with, touch, and embrace people who love us. Maybe you experience this with your significant other, maybe with your kids and grandkids, maybe with your friends or other loved ones or with your church family. Cherish these moments—it is God’s grace given through people. It is sacramental, and it is holy.

That is what we will remember of each other when we no longer walk the earth together. That is what we will have to cherish until we see one another again on the other side, when we share this feast with Christ in his kingdom with all the saints. We love one another, though imperfectly, because Christ first loved us.

Yes, time is running short for Jesus tonight. But we live in a world full of death.

Time is running short for all of us.

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

As time runs short for Jesus, may we experience the story as if for the first time, forgetting that we know the ending. Because this isn’t just the story of Jesus. This is the story of our Savior, the Word of God made flesh for us. This is our story; it is the story who tells us who we are, and why we are to love one another.

We are who we are because he loved his own who were in the world, and he loved us — fiercely — to the end. Amen.

The Rev. Anna Tew is a Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born in rural Alabama, considers Atlanta home, and lives in and adores New England. She has worked in a variety of ministry settings, urban and rural, both in the parish and in hospital chaplaincy.  In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics.

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Bible Study, Lent 5 (B) – March 18, 2018

[RCL] Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The prophet Jeremiah was active in the final years of the kingdom of Judah, leading up to the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 BC and the Jewish people’s exile in Babylon. In the face of this impending destruction, he nevertheless foresaw a restored life for the people, one in which they would be even closer to God than before. God promised to maintain a covenantal relationship with the people, just as he had after the Exodus—but instead of a law written on stone tablets, God would write the law of the new covenant on their hearts. Later Christian interpreters would see themselves as the recipients of this “new covenant” or, in one Latin translation, Novum Testamentum, from which we get the term “New Testament.”

  • Have you ever felt comforted by a promise during a difficult time?
  • What would it look like for God to write his law on your heart? Has your Lenten practice helped you move toward this vision?

Psalm 51:1-13

The Church has long recognized Psalm 51 as a central psalm of penitence and contrition; it is a major part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, where its penitential tone sets the stage for Lent. The editors of the Psalms described it as “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba,” linking its general themes of sin and repentance to a specific instance of sin. The words of the psalm, when lifted out of the context of this story, can apply to almost any human life. The psalm’s great power comes from the potential each person has to find herself or himself in it.

  • We frequently confess our sins against God and our neighbor, but the psalm claims that, “Against you only have I sinned” (v. 4). In what sense are sins against neighbors sins against God?
  • The psalm builds toward a prayer for a “clean heart” and a “right spirit,” for the joy and sustenance of the Holy Spirit. Have you ever felt refreshed or renewed by confessing where you’ve gone wrong?

Hebrews 5:5-10

The curious figure of Melchizedek appears twice in the Old Testament. Melchizedek, whose name means “King of Righteousness,” is called the “King of Salem” (that is, Jerusalem) and a “priest of God Most High” in Genesis 14, where he offers bread and wine and blesses Abram. Psalm 110 addresses the king in a royal psalm, saying, as Hebrews quotes here, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

In ancient Judaism, priests regularly offered sacrifices of many kinds in the Temple, which was the main form of worship. The high priest played the key role of cleansing the Temple of impurity on the annual Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. In this passage, Hebrews combines these and other images from Scripture to describe Jesus: Son of God, righteous king, high priest, suffering servant, obedient follower.

  • What are some of the images that help you understand Jesus? Righteous King? Royal priest? Shepherd? Brother? How do these different names change the way you see him?

John 12:20-33

This “passion prediction” is one of the instances in the gospels in which Jesus says something suggesting the way he will die, and what effect his death will have. This passage is only about halfway through the gospel, continuing a series of sayings beginning in the earliest chapters of John, in which Jesus proclaims the saving power of his coming death. After hearing that “some Greeks” have come to see him, Jesus promises that he will “draw all people” to himself. “Greeks” here likely means “people who are not Jews,” as it does elsewhere in the New Testament, rather than people from what we would now call Greece. The idea that Greeks are coming to Jesus is therefore a physical embodiment of his relationship with “all people.”

  • How has Jesus drawn you to himself? Has his death on the cross been an important part of that attraction? Why or why not?
  • What does it mean in the 21st century that Jesus will draw “all people” to himself? Do you have a part to play in that process?

Greg Johnston is a third-year student at Berkeley Divinity School and a candidate for ordination to the priesthood in the Diocese of Massachusetts. He has served the Church in urban parishes, campus ministry, and community organizing, in Massachusetts and Connecticut. He currently lives in New Haven with his wife Alice Kenney, and he spends most of his free time running, cooking, or reading mystery novels.

Download the Bible study for Lent 5 (B).

Snakes, Lent 4 (B) – March 11, 2018

Episcopal Lent Sermon

[RCL]: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107: 1-2, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

If you are uncomfortable around snakes, this might not be your Sunday! But, if you can set that discomfort aside, you will be treated to an insight about how the ancient Hebrew Bible reading from Numbers connects with the Gospel reading from John.

If you were running from something, brutal slave labor, for example, you could hardly write a tougher scenario of a flight to freedom than the Exodus. The people of the Hebrews were fleeing through the desert, and their wilderness wanderings were plagued by lack of food and water. And now snakes. Why? Because they complained against the God who was delivering them.

So, when was the last time you found yourself in traffic complaining about its slow pace, while your air conditioner or heater hummed, and you listened to satellite radio in stereo? Here you are in your own little island, but you are upset because you can’t get to work or home any faster. And while you might not be tripping over snakes, you at least know you’re going to get there eventually. The Hebrews didn’t even know where “there” was.

Being miserable is something we try to avoid, but how we handle it really hasn’t changed much. The power goes off and we call the electric utility and complain. The water is turned off for a few hours because of a water main leak, and we whine at the water company. The waiter tells us they have just run out of the dish we had so looked forward to, so we fuss and grumble as we order another choice from a varied menu.

Okay, so maybe this is a little over the top about complaining, but really – what do we have to complain about? Besides, it’s Lent! Aren’t we supposed to feel a little miserable?

Like Moses with the Hebrews, somebody prays for us. Somebody offers up our fears of snakes that bite us and frighten us. Somebody breaks the bread and blesses the cup and offers us real spiritual food. The bread is broken, the cup is offered, and we see the sign like the people saw the bronze serpent in the wilderness and lived. We receive the bread and the cup, and our impatience and complaining retreat, even if only for a while.

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,” proclaims the Psalmist. And if God is good, what he offers us is never a snake that bites us, but the bread of life. “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.”

Lent is all about who truly delivers us from the hardships we suffer, the complaints we offer, and the peril of the snakes in this world.

Paul writes to the Ephesians, carefully setting up the situation: we are all dead through our sinning because we think the things of this world will save us, keep us comfortable, and drive the snakes away. He describes God as rich in mercy and able in our dead state to make us alive in Christ Jesus, saved and raised up with him. And most of all, we can’t cause it by our good works. Rather, God’s free gift of Christ on the cross—recalling the serpent lifted up by Moses—brings us salvation. The snakes can’t win. Thanks be to God.

So, we come to the Gospel reading from John, and the one verse every Christian knows by heart: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This passage is so well known that it is often coded on billboards and in ads as John 3:16 with no text provided.

And that may be the problem. This text taken by itself is almost a romantic rendering of the Gospel, as if somehow God came into the world and erased evil in all its forms from our lives. That leaves us with a lot of questions. Recently the parents of a young child who died of influenza were agonizing over why their Christian belief didn’t save their child. Good, well-intentioned, and brave people are killed every day: some by accident, some by violence and mayhem. Simply quoting John 3:16 to their families and friends will not provide a lot of comfort.

The story of the Gospel is about our encounter with it, and how even after hearing it, we may choose evil rather than good. Jesus’ life and ministry are a judgment because despite his being in the world, people still love darkness rather than light, and our deeds are often evil, as John continues to proclaim.

So, Lent is not just a time for us to get closer to Jesus and hope for the best. Lent is a time to embrace the challenge of the Gospel, to swim upstream against all of the world’s downstream current of things that pleasure us and delight us, but never satisfy.

Deep Lent, as some call this time, is when we struggle with the darkness, and may not always find answers to why it is so pervasive. We cannot answer why evil seems so prevalent because we can’t readily see it in our own choices. So, asking to be part of the light will reveal what is hidden in our darkness, and most of us would prefer not to see. That is why self-examination and confession are rare and avoided by most of us. But we have strayed like lost sheep, we have followed too much the desires of our own hearts, to the point where, left on our own, we are truly lost.

So, make today a turning point, an embracing of John 3:16 for your future. If you say this passage every day this week and ask God how to embrace it, you will find a way. You will find it as you receive the bread and the cup. You will find it as you reach out to another human being who is also lost and lonely. You will find a way to move more into the light. You will have different questions to ask, ones for which there are answers.

The only reason Jesus could go to the cross was because he dared to walk into the darkness. We have to do the same if we are going to follow him the rest of the Lenten journey. That means leaving a lot of things behind, including the world’s wisdom for how to live in the darkness by making everything pleasant for ourselves.

Somehow, we have to connect with these readings, with the Hebrews who wandered in the desert. Somehow, we have to embrace St. Paul who writes in Ephesians about our being dead because we follow the course of the world. And somehow, we have to take what is offered this Sunday, the word and sacrament, and let it begin to work in us so that, as John so wonderfully writes: “it may be clearly seen that [our] deeds have been done in God.”

As the collect for this 4th Sunday of Lent says, “Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us and we in him.”

Pray those words, and then make room for God to lift them up in your life. Amen.

The Rev. Ben E. Helmer is a retired Episcopal priest living in the Diocese of Arkansas.

Download the sermon for Lent 4 (B).

Resisting the Idolatry of the Age, Lent 3 (B) – March 4, 2018

[RCL] Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

In this age, when Mammon is worshipped gleefully in the public realm of both politics and of what passes for popular religion, it is bracing to read St. John’s depiction of Jesus’ visit to the Temple, to his “Father’s house,” as he called it. It makes us cry aloud, “Oh, for a whip of justice to clean out the corruption in our own temples of power.” Yet, we know that only Jesus has the courage and the authority to do so. All we are able to do is wait and repeat, “How long oh Lord, how long?”

For Jesus, it is the first Passover of his public ministry and his first known visit to Jerusalem as a grown man. This is uniquely St. John’s chronology of the event; no less an authority than Archbishop William Temple declares that it is the correct one (the other gospels put this visit just before his arrest and crucifixion). The Archbishop makes it clear that early in his ministry, Jesus still considers the Herodian Temple his “Father’s House.” But by the end of his ministry, when he weeps over Jerusalem as “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it,” he declares it to be the people’s temple. “See, your house is left to you,” he cries, and the implication of desolation is in his words.

The Temple was finally finished in A.D. 64 only to be destroyed six years later. By then Jesus’ resurrected body was the temple he was talking about in his prophecy. “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Later the sycophants of the high priests will force witnesses to accuse Jesus of saying that he himself would destroy the temple, but as false witnesses do, they lied. It was not he who destroyed the temple; it was human arrogance and sin.

Why did Jesus become so angry when he saw his father’s house being made into a marketplace? The Old Testament lesson gives us many clues to the answer. Idolatry of any kind was forbidden by God. The money changers had the following purpose: taxes had to be paid to the Roman overlords, but the Roman money carried the image of Caesar on it. The High Priests, considering this image idolatry, had ordered that the money paid in taxes should be converted to the shekel in order to be acceptable for Temple business. In that exchange, a great profit went into the coffers of these same priests. Jesus knew that this was both profanity of the Temple and exploitation of the poor citizens. It was another form of idolatry, but this time the idol was Mammon, a god ever present both then and now—a god not named by his followers but worshipped nonetheless.

Jesus also knew that his acts in the courtyard of the Temple would bring him in direct conflict with these same high priests, but fear was unknown to him; nothing ever stopped him from obeying the will of his Father. This early in his ministry he is very popular with the people, so the priests don’t dare touch him. As his interpretation of who God is and what God demands of us continues throughout the land, he becomes a stumbling block to the high priests, and the people, not getting the signs that they demand, agree to his death. But on this first Passover in Jerusalem, filled with the Holy Spirit, he burns with the fire and power of Truth. Afraid of that fire, they don’t dare touch him, but their desire to see him dead begins on that day.

In a few years St. Paul will articulate it very clearly to the Corinthians. The Jews, Jesus’ and Paul’s own people, were scandalized by Jesus’ courage, by his claim to know the mind of his father, by his willingness to meet his death without any retaliation or violence. To the Gentiles, with whom Paul is sharing what he learned from Christ, all this is foolishness. It goes against their own admiration for wisdom and philosophy, even for courage in battle. St. Paul summarizes the reaction to the acts of Jesus in brilliant brevity: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

In today’s gospel story, St. John shows the scandalous activity of Jesus in all its glory. The leaders of the Jews had fooled the people with a piety that had become idolatry and had allowed physical structures to take the place of a God who demanded, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Our culture has forgotten this command also, and so many signs or symbols have been turned into idols: the Ten Commandments are not obeyed, but their depiction on stone is approved; the flag that is supposed to remind us of the human longing for freedom becomes an idol to be worshipped at athletic games; money that should be used to educate and feed children becomes an idolatrous acquisition for those who already have too much of it, while our streets fill with homeless people; and other, old symbols of the evil of violence return to trouble our dreams.

We need Jesus’ courage to cleanse the temples of idolatry. We long for his kind of integrity that dares to call out the oppressors, no matter who they are. We pray for the power to overthrow the tables of the moneychangers who cheat the poor and the voiceless. In St. Paul’s words, we too must “proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Nowhere does Paul ever speak of a prosperity gospel.

As we approach Holy Week, we need the love and the passion that can sustain us even unto death. We will be laughed at when we too resist the culture of the day, but we will remember with St. Paul that, “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Let us be aware, more than ever during this season of Lent, that the power of God goes with us.

Katerina Whitley is an author, a retreat leader, and a social justice advocate. She has worked as an Episcopal communicator on the diocesan and national church level for four decades. The author of seven books, she lives in Boone and teaches at Appalachian State University. She lectures on St. Paul and the First Century as the author of A New Love which is centered on the ministry of the great apostle. She invites you to visit her website, www.katerinawhitley.net.

Download the sermon for Lent 3 (B).

Bible Study, Lent 3 (B) – March 4, 2018

[RCL] Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

Exodus 20:1-17

The recitation of the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, will likely be familiar to listeners of this week’s Old Testament reading, and many might have images of a technicolor Charlton Heston descending from the mountain, tablets in hand. But what’s striking in this reading is that God—not Moses—is speaking directly to the Israelites. Hearing directly from the Divine would have left quite an impact on these former Egyptian slaves as they made their way through the desert.

There’s an order to the commandments as well—get in right relationship with God (the first four commandments) and then you can be in right relationship with each other (the remaining six). The directives aren’t meant to micro-manage our lives, but to apply constant pressure, the pressure of discipleship and formation, that can continue to guide us toward a life that is in right relationship with God, creation, and each other.

  • Where are some areas where we are individually or collectively out of synch with God’s directives?
  • What are some small practices that we might initiate to help re-form our lives to be in better relationship with God and with each other?

Psalm 19

The psalm opens with what might be imagined as a wondrous cacophony of sound as all creation attests to God’s glory. Each day eagerly shouts to the next, and each night whispers God’s glory above our slumber—yet the sounds aren’t heard (v. 3). One is tempted to hold an ear to the ground to catch even a glimmer of the joyous noise.

It takes God’s laws and decrees—Torah—to help translate the celestial symphony for our ears. By letting ourselves be molded by God’s directives, we can begin to hear and see the glorious celebration going on around us all the time. Finally, as we journey deeper and deeper into our relationship with God—allowing ourselves to be formed and shaped and forgiven—we can humbly submit our own voice to the worship, with the plea: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.” What a joyous noise indeed!

  • Where can we hear the celebration of God’s glory in the world around us? What is it calling us to do in response?

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

When looked at from the outside—as many of the Greeks and Jews of Corinth would have seen them—these Christ believers had an “upside-down” view of reality. Weakness is strength and death is salvation. The Apostle Paul highlights the paradox of the cross and establishes a neat dichotomy to drive unity for the church in Corinth: be among those who are perishing or with those who are living. Who wouldn’t choose life, under the circumstances?

Paul is trying to mend a divided church in Corinth, where the wealthy members, lured by the Corinthian ideal of clever oratory (and possibly disappointed with Paul’s own admitted mumblings) are tempted to segregate from their poorer counterparts and create their own ideal of church. Paul recognizes that they are missing the point. He forces them—and us—to stare directly into the shame and tragedy of the cross and, in so doing, put all humankind on equal footing. None of us is greater than another—no matter what our earthly skills or accomplishments might suggest—and all are far weaker than God’s apparent weakness and more foolish than God’s seeming foolishness.

  • What divisions do we still see that threaten to divide us today? How might a Divine view of things yield solidarity across division?

John 2:13-22

This week’s gospel reading plays with the notion of time in a number of ways. First, Jesus’ disruption at the Temple takes place at the beginning of his mission, not at the end as it appears in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Second, his zeal causes his disciples to reflect back on Psalm 69—“Zeal for your house has eaten me up”—as Jesus unexpectedly turns over tables and throws money on the floor. Finally, there’s what might be called a memory nugget—something said that might not make total sense in the moment but, in hindsight, is clear as day. When asked for a sign, Jesus radically states that the temple, under construction for many years, can be razed and reconstructed in merely three days. One imagines the quizzical looks exchanged by the disciples in the moment, their own disbelief at Jesus’ wild overture. Only in looking back, through the lens of Jesus’ death and resurrection, would the statement make sense. What seemed an impossible claim in the moment would become, in the end, a proof point that Jesus as Christ had replaced the earthly temple once and for all.

  • What memory nuggets in your own formation, in retrospect, serve as proof points for your own faith?
  • What difficult or challenging events or, conversely, times of wonder and awe, still serve to strengthen your faith?

This Bible study was written by Gregory Warren of the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas.

Download the Bible study for Lent 3 (B).

Behind the Veil, Last Sunday after Epiphany (B) – February 11, 2018

Epiphany Sermon Episcopal

[RCL] 2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

Come, Holy Spirit, let us go up to the mountain. Open our ears to hear God’s voice in the clouds. Open our eyes to see God’s glory shine through the veil. Open our hearts to trust that God is always with us on the journey, so that when we come down from the mountain, we will not be afraid. In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.

Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday. The readings from Second Kings and the Gospel of Mark are just dazzling, two of the most beautiful stories in scripture: Elijah’s ascent to heaven and Jesus’ transfiguration. These are mystical, magical stories where heaven and earth meet in an extraordinary human being. These are stories of miracles and the eternal; at the same time, these stories are profoundly human, speaking of love, loss, grief, and transformation.

The Transfiguration describes a theophany, an experience of God’s ever-near eternal presence. Mark tells the story with a clear simplicity. Jesus goes to a mountain to pray, accompanied by his dear friends, the disciples Peter, James, and John. And there they see him transfigured, dazzling white, shining with the glory of God, and talking with the great prophets Moses and Elijah. The scene is reminiscent of Moses’ transfiguration in Exodus 34, when he came down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets of the covenant, his face shining so brightly from his encounter with God that his people were afraid and he had to cover it with a veil. In each story, the mountain is a thin place, a bridge between heaven and earth.

The Transfiguration describes a mystical moment on the mountain, a visible manifestation of the union of human and divine in Jesus. Like Moses’ people, Jesus’ friends are terrified by what they have seen. Terrified—and in awe of that glimpse of God’s eternal glory, and Jesus’ unity with that Glory, and indeed the unity of all humankind forever and ever, world without end, in God and Jesus.

In the climax of the scene, Jesus is called by God, who confirms his identity as the Son of God. “This is my Son the Beloved; listen to him!” This experience is a turning point for Jesus as well as his disciples. Jesus, reminded of his unity with God, turns toward the inevitable end of his human story. The Transfiguration is a bridge between Jesus’ public ministry as a traveling teacher and healer in Galilee, and the road to his passion, death, and resurrection in Jerusalem. Transfiguration Sunday is a bridge from Epiphany, when we celebrate the miracles and works of Jesus’ life, to Lent, when we focus on Jesus’ journey to the cross.

The Transfiguration is a miracle, a revelation of Christ’s glory, a glimpse behind the veil between heaven and earth, a hint of the end-time. Miracles need to be experienced. Perhaps this is a clue to Jesus’ instruction to his friends to tell no one what they had seen. Miracles, like an experience of God, cannot be adequately described or explained.

The story of Elijah’s ascent to heaven is another such meeting of heaven and earth, an experience of God that is dazzling and miraculous. We know from the opening line of the passage that God is about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elijah knows where he is going; the company of prophets know where he is going; his student and protégé Elisha knows where he is going. In an echo of Jesus’ instruction to tell no one, Elisha insists: keep silent. He knows, but he is not ready. It is touching and profoundly human that Elisha will not leave his master. He stays with him as long as he can, accompanying him on the journey to eternal union with God. Elisha tries to hold on to all that his friend is to him: human mentor, divinely-inspired prophet and healer, holy man who is intimately connected with God. “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit,” he begs in his distress.

Embedded within these stories of transfiguration—these revelations of God’s glory—are stories of human grief. Elisha accompanies his beloved mentor as far as he can, until he can no longer see him, then tears his clothes in lamentation. Peter, James, and John too are reluctant to let go of the marvelous, concrete, human manifestation of God’s eternal light. They suggest that they might make dwellings for the prophets, keep them here with them. They do not want their beloved to leave them behind.

Today we’ve heard two stories of thresholds, moments of crossing over, journeying toward the threshold of life and death, the temporal and eternal, with a loved teacher. How like a scene from hospice care! Family and friends are gathered to hold vigil at the threshold of life and death, to accompany their loved one as far along the journey as they can. There may be a glimpse of the shining light toward which the traveler has already turned his or her face. “Please stay, I’ll build you a house,” you might plead. Or, simply, since you must go, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”

Both stories are encounters with the divine, encounters at the threshold. They are reminders that God walks with us on our journey to unity with the infinite, mystical, unknowable, and untellable. In the intimacy and heightened intensity of a bedside death vigil, as at the transfiguration or the ascent to heaven, may we be open to the moments when we can catch a glimpse, a fleeting experience, of God’s eternal glory. Feeling God’s presence in the transfigured faces at a hospice bedside, or as sunlight pours through the stained glass of a chapel window, transfiguring the face of Christ, the miracle and blessing of grief is the spiritual deepening that can result. May we live in hope and die in the certainty of unity with God and all the saints. In the stories of Jesus’ transfiguration and Elijah’s ascent to heaven, the dead are not lost nor the living left behind. Grief and suffering are transformed by the mystical knowledge that we shall be together in God’s love again, as we always have been and always shall be.

The closing words are from the collect of the day. Let us pray: O God, grant that we, beholding by faith the light of Christ’s countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Susan Butterworth, M.A., M.Div, is a writer, teacher, singer, and lay minister. She leads Song & Stillness: Taizé @ MIT, a weekly ecumenical service of contemplative Taizé prayer at the interfaith chapel at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She sings with Threshold Singers, a group that sings at hospice bedside. She teaches writing and literature to college undergraduates, and writes essays and literary reference articles.

Download the sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany (B).