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Sunday, March 17, 2019

Scorpions, Hens and Chicks: the Cosmic Hesed of God

Luke 13:31-35
There is a story of an old man who used to meditate early in the morning under a big tree on the bank of the Ganges River. One morning, after he had finished his meditation, the old man opened his eyes and saw a scorpion floating helplessly in the water.
As the scorpion was washed closer to the tree, the old man quickly stretched himself out on one of the long roots that branched out into the river and reached out to rescue the drowning creature. As soon as he touched it, the scorpion stung him. Instinctively the man withdrew his hand. A minute later, after he had regained his balance, he stretched himself out again on the roots to save the scorpion. This time the scorpion stung him so badly with its poisonous tail that his hand became swollen and bloody and his face contorted with pain.
At that moment, a passerby saw the old man stretched out on the roots struggling with the scorpion and shouted: “Hey, stupid old man, what’s wrong with you? Only a fool would risk his life for the sake of an ugly, evil creature. Don’t you know you could kill yourself trying to save that ungrateful scorpion?”
The old man turned his head. Looking into the stranger’s eyes he said calmly, “My friend, just because it is the scorpion’s nature to sting, that does not change my nature to save.”
Just because it is his nature to sting, that doesn’t change my nature to save. Doesn't that sound to you a lot like Jesus?
The lament of Jesus in our gospel today sounds an awful lot to me like the lament within the old man’s statement. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he cried out, and we can hear the sadness in his words, “….How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you did not want me!” (a literal translation of the Greek).
And yet, Jesus perseveres. From his birth to the cross, Jesus reaches out to the people of Jerusalem. Indeed, he gets stung again and again and again. Yet, even as he makes his final march toward that city, the Pharisees come to him to warn him away. Were they really looking out for Jesus or was their motive more sinister?
Jesus' response, of course, foreshadows what we know of as the Great Three Days of our salvation. Despite humanity’s nature to sin, despite the institutional rejection of Jesus by the Jewish leadership, despite his upcoming persecution, passion, and death at the hands of the Romans, Jesus perseveres in his walk of love, mercy and compassion. On the third day, through his resurrection, Jesus will indeed finish his salvific work on behalf of the stinging creature, humankind.  
How many times has God set out to establish equanimity with humankind, to show his love, to show us a better way of being at one with God and with our neighbor, and we would not follow, would not listen, would not obey God. No matter our nature to turn our backs on God, God’s nature to save continues.
As I met with other clergy in a text study on Wednesday, one of my colleagues remarked about how through the various readings we have before us this week, we really do get a vision of God that is one of cosmic nurturer. Isn’t that a beautiful way to picture God? As the one who nurtures the universe and all that is within it; as the one determined to save, regardless of the cost.
Abram and Sarai, his wife, have reached a point of hopelessness over ever being able to conceive a child of their own union. Yet, God promises and delivers not just a child but countless offspring through vast generations to come. As God so often does, God does not just meet the need but fills the desire with overflowing generosity.
See the heavens stretching out before you? [God asks Abram] Can you number the stars? They are more than you can count, aren’t they? And God promises to fill the cosmos with descendants in numbers as vast as the stars in the sky. And God keeps God’s promises.
A couple of months ago, Patti invited all of us to write our names on stars that she then hung from the ceiling in the hallway leading to the education wing.[If you didn't get a chance to put your name on one, we have them laid out again on the table with the nametags in the narthex).
Every time I pass through that hallway, I look up. All those stars suspended in the air overhead is heavenly. You can read some of the names…Mel, Pat, Ruth, Bob, Julia, London, Nazie, and so many more names; even my name is up there, somewhere. God’s generous answer to Abram’s need is a vast abundance that includes you and me.
While all Abram wanted was a single heir, God’s vision was so much bigger. It extends thousands of years and all around the globe. 
Today there are three major religions of the world,, known as the Abrahamic religions whose adherents worship this God who is so generous, so creative, and so masterful. We each have our own ways of understanding the nature of God and how God relates to us, but we all believe in the same God, one God, and the content of our stories and our scriptures overlap.
In Islam, God is rendered “Allah” in Arabic, literally “the God”. God is the absolute one, all powerful and all knowing ruler of the universe, and the creator of everything in existence. Islam emphasizes that God is strictly singular and unique, inherently One,  all-merciful and omnipotent.  Muslims consider God neither a material nor a spiritual being. According to the Quran and teachings of Islam, "No vision can grasp him, but His grasp is over all vision: He is above all comprehension, yet is acquainted with all things."
In Judaism, God has been conceived in a variety of ways. Primarily, Jews hold that Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the national god of the Israelites, delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and gave them the Law of Moses at Mount Sinai as described in the Torah, their holy book.
God is understood as the absolute one, indivisible, and incomparable supreme being who is the ultimate cause of all existence. Traditional interpretations of Judaism emphasize that God is personal yet also transcendent, while some modern interpretations of Judaism emphasize that God is a force or ideal.
The names of God used most often in the Hebrew Bible are the Tetragrammaton (YHWH Hebrew: יהוה) and Elohim, also, El Shaddai and Shekinah. Whatever name is used, there is but one God .
For Christians, God is one God in three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three persons are indivisible – not three gods, but one God. As we state in our creed, we believe that God is the creator, all knowing and all powerful, who took on flesh and became human in the person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus is the savior, the incarnation of a god who is so in love with humanity that he will do anything to save us from our sinful, warring madness, even join us in our own suffering and die for us, to ensure our eternal life with him through the resurrection.
God continues to bless, sanctify and endow fill our spiritual needs through God’s Holy Spirit, who contains all the aspects of God within herself.
The heart of Christian belief is that indeed, God did not keep Jesus from receiving the final sting of death, but allowed it, that all might be brought to eternal life through the power of the resurrection.
It’s a lot of heady stuff, all pointing to one thing – that despite our differences, these three major world religions basically share the same main beliefs about God: that God is one, that God is the creator who engages with humanity in ways that are unique and mysterious and merciful. And this immensely interconnected, generous and creative God exists for us all, binding us together in one humanity.
That’s an important truth for us to grasp, especially today.
Human conventions have created ideologies around each of these religions, resulting in misunderstanding, creating factions of extremism within each, and producing conflict, war, and struggles for power.
We see the result of this in our world today. Sadly, we even saw such division used this week as one inspiration and justification for a horrible act of terrorism and hatred directed toward a religious community.
Mercifully, however, we have also seen an international and interreligious response of support for the Muslim community and condemnation for the cowardly and hate-filled act taken against them.
We are right to pray for and support our Muslim brothers and sisters in New Zealand and anywhere in the world where they face injustice, prejudice and hatred. Adherents of true Islam are indeed our friends, created in the image of God as are we, and deserving of our love and support. As worshipers of one true God, Christians, Jews and Muslims alike speak out against injustice and promote peaceful coexistence, and in so doing, have become easy marks for power-hungry, extremist, and hate-filled groups in the world, and we see attacks against all three groups with increasing regularity.
We all seek comfort and consolation from the brutality of the world from the same loving, merciful God. The image of God as a hen who desires to gather her brood under her wings, is the picture of an incredibly nurturing God.
The lament of Jesus and his true sorrow is that despite God’s nurturing nature, despite covenants offered and needs addressed, rejection of God’s love and mercy abound. And now, as the incarnation of God’s hesed – God’s abundant, steadfast love and mercy embodied in Jesus Christ, the scorpion stings – but the true nature of God persists.
Lamentation is Jesus’ response to the sting; the cross is God’s response to the rejection. Even now, Jesus is calling us all into loving relationship with him. Even now, God is providing for our salvation through the cross. Even now, God reigns supreme, regardless of the worldly reality of sin, hatred, violence and denial.
The thing is, it is the nature of God to continue nurturing the cosmos. For the same God who sent Jesus as love for love’s sake is with us still, washes us in the waters of baptism, feeds us through the holy sacraments, blesses and empowers us through the work of the Spirit.
Thanks be to God, mothering, fathering, blessing, loving, merciful creator and redeemer. Amen.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Smartphones, Temptation and Blessing

Luke 4:1-13
I own a smartphone; the brand and model don’t matter. My phone does an okay job most of the time. It keeps me connected – sometimes overly connected to people and news and weather reports; it allows me the ability to look up information on almost any topic under the sun with just a couple of taps and swipes.
My phone is not perfect by any means – last week it did a software update and ever since then, Paula’s text messages come up as though from a person named Brenda. But most days, it does the job it’s intended to do.
And yet, I have people telling me that it isn’t good enough – that there this or that model of smartphone – the newest, the most up-to-date – which is a faster, better, and smarter phone than the one I currently own. These messages come not just from technology companies advertising the newest gizmo they want to sell me, but friends and family members, advising me it might be time to trade in and upgrade my phone.
I received no less than 6 new offers of credit cards in the mail, and several more through email this week. That’s pretty typical of most weeks – though the offers double just before the Christmas shopping season. Like most of you, I have a couple of credit cards and I use them for convenience. I don’t need any more credit cards, and I don’t need to replace the ones I have with a different type. But that doesn’t stop the deluge of offers, telling me that I’m not getting enough points, or rewards, or other benefits with what I have.
Through all forms of communication these days, I get advice on everything from weight-reduction and exercise programs to memory-improving programs (which you know I could use!) to books and internet helps for my sermons, to advise me what kind of mattress I need to improve the quality of my sleep, to what kind of fertilizer I should use on my lawn because, let’s face it, it’s just not green enough.
Are you catching the trend here?
So much of what we are told on a daily basis colors our lives with the cultural judgment that we, what we have, and what we do, is “not enough.”
This reality creates in us certainty in our own inadequacy; it’s supposed to. It makes us more susceptible to the implicit promises that the senders of those messages can fix us, and fix our lives. “Trust me,” these voices say. “We (or I) will save you from yourself.”
And it’s not just advertisers of products and programs that give us this message. We also hear it from candidates for public office regardless of the brand or party, as well as from watch-dog groups, and the media who all seek to create in us insecurity and fear.
Terrorism, immigrants, corporations, joblessness, low wages, high taxes, crime statistics, rank inequality, global warming, the wealthy, the poor, rising insurance costs, sky-high medical costs, decreasing birthrates – depending on who you are listening to, the target shifts, but the message is still the same – you should be afraid because on your own you can do nothing to mitigate or erase any of these dangers. All you have to do is elect me and I’ll keep you safe. I will save you from danger.
As our Gospel lesson began today, Jesus returned from the Jordan River, where he had just been Baptized. There, as he came up from the water, the Holy Spirit fell on him and God’s voice affirmed him, saying, You are my Chosen One, My Son, whom I dearly love.” The Holy Spirit filled Jesus. God’s Spirit was in him and around him and through him.
And now Jesus, so filled, is led by that very same Spirit into the wilderness - a place of both divine encounter and demonic danger. We don’t know what happened during the forty days, what other kind of temptations the devil threw his way, only that Jesus was tempted the whole time.
And finally, having come through that time without succumbing to the devil’s wiles, Jesus nearly reaches the end of his time in the wilderness. He can see the finish line!
He is starving. He is tired. He is, remember, fully human as well as fully divine – so after forty days of fasting, he is at his most vulnerable. So of course, Satan uses that fact and strikes again, confident that surely now, when Jesus is this close to exhausting his resistance and strength, he will give in to temptation.
Ary Scheffer, “The Temptation of Christ” (1854)
He gives Jesus three ways to go the easier, softer way. To this man-god who will feed 5,000 with just five loaves and two fish, and heal people of their blindness and lameness and diseases, and himself die and rise again to save humanity from the cost of its sin, the devil says, just turn stone into bread and appease your hunger.
The devil pretends that he has the power to give and to take away ultimate authority over the world, and will do so, if Jesus will just worship him.
And finally, the devil guides Jesus to the highest of heights and tests his confidence in his God-given identity. “If you are really the Son of God, prove it – throw yourself down from here, and let’s see God send those angels come to save you,” he sneers, essentially suggesting that Jesus could use the angels as his own personal security force if he really is the Son of God.
Bread, power, safety.
Funny, those are essentially the same things with which the media, advertisers, and voices seeking power in our world today, attempt to entice us to give our allegiance and our trust to them, today.
While the devil tempts Jesus, perhaps the larger picture for us as we begin our Lenten journey, is to notice that through his response to the devil, Jesus in fact shows us a better way. Jesus illustrates that trusting in God and embracing in the identity we have received as God’s beloved through our own Baptism, we can resist the temptations and trials of life, and we cling to the truth of God’s unending love.
We are daily tempted in countless ways to lose our confidence in God and faith in the power through which we are claimed in, through and by the blood of Jesus.
But each time we gather together as we do today we are reminded of and strengthened in our God-given identity as God’s beloved children. We are reminded through font, Word and meal that we are God’s children and we are loved just as we are. It is enough and more than we can ever imagine to be so loved by the creator God and saved by God’s grace in and through Jesus.
God’s abundant life comes to us in the midst of death, as Jesus’ blood was poured out upon the cross.
The devil and his minions are ceaseless in their insistence that the cross is nothing but foolishness and powerlessness. And yet it is the wisdom of God to send Jesus to win our salvation upon that cross to give us new life. To give us eternal life. We don’t have to understand it. We just have to believe it.
The devil and his minions would like nothing better than to have us believe that we are not good enough, that God’s love is not strong enough, and that Jesus’ sacrifice is not powerful enough to save us from the powers of the world and our own sinfulness.
In Baptism and from the Cross, God’s Holy Spirit promises us just the opposite – that in Jesus and through the power of our Baptism, God will never let us go.  
The encounter between Jesus and the devil in the wilderness speaks to the nature of temptation itself. It, temptation, is that which seeks to lure us away from trusting relationship with God; it seeks to draw us away from confidence in God and his holy hold on us.
Through the abundant life that we have in Jesus, God’s claim on us is ironclad, and the devil has no claim at all.
            During Lent we are often focused on self-denial, sacrifice, and resisting temptation, and that, in and of itself is good. But those practices alone are incomplete. Rather, let our practices of Lent serve to draw us closer to God, re-direct our attention from the worldly message that we are not good enough, and toward lives of trust and confidence in the love and grace of God poured out on the cross.
            May our repentance take us away from dependence on worldly approval and judgements of worth to the only judgement that matters, God’s judgement of love and desire for relationship with you.
            The thing is, all other messages aside, the only one we need to hear and believe is that God loves us and will keep loving us no matter what, and for this reason alone we are enough, because God made it so.
            To confirm this truth, I’d like to ask you to turn to a person next to you or, if you are sitting alone and cannot easily move to near to another person. Each of you, please trace the sign of the cross on the other’s forehead and say, “Remember your baptism, for you are God’s beloved child.” Or, to yourself, make the sign of the cross and say to yourself, “I am God’s beloved child”.
            As you journey through Lent, may you remember that you are enough. May you know that God’s love is enough, and that it is for you, forever. Amen. 

Monday, March 4, 2019

Curios, Bright Lights and the Cross

Luke 9:28-36 Transfiguration
            A curio cabinet from my mother stands in our house. Keeping it with me is just one way of keeping my mom with me; Mom lives with dementia and is slipping away from us a little bit at a time. But she always loved her knick-knacks, so, while I don’t have the same attachment to them that my mother did, I keep some of her favorite items in the curio. Statuettes of angels, birds, and children live on the glass shelves of the cabinet where I can enjoy them, think of Mom, and keep them safe.
            I have friends who have sets of china or linens or other precious things that were handed down to them by parents or grandparents, and in most cases, they, too, keep them on display or hidden away in closets, trunks, or even boxes.
We keep treasures like these safe and out of the hands (and sight) of unapproved users. They sometimes come out to be used and enjoyed, but most of the time we consider them too precious or too fragile to be out of protective custody.
            When we have something that holds special meaning or value to us, our instinct is to hold onto it, hide it, box it in, or otherwise preserve it. Think about it for a minute. What do you have in your life that is so treasured?       
The story of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop comes each year on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. It, too, becomes a story that we read about, talk about, and then put away until the same time next year. And yet, the Transfiguration of Jesus was considered such an important event by the writers of the synoptic Gospels that Matthew, Mark, and Luke each included it in his account of Jesus’ life.
With this story, a line is drawn that connects Jesus’ baptism and the cross.
It is fitting as we approach the beginning of Lent that the scene described in our Gospel text should be the view in our mind’s eye. Before we contemplate the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we first witness the glory of God revealed in Jesus the Christ.
See that cross up there? Or the one back there? They remind us of a pivotal part of our story. The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus stands as a reminder too, that no matter what happens to Jesus, the glory of God is established in him. Therefore, God will have the last word and will raise him up in glory. Despite the events that will unfold in Jerusalem, including his own passion and death that Jesus himself has predicted, God’s claim and God’s love rest on him and will carry him beyond the darkness of death and into eternal glory.
Peter, James, and John accompany Jesus who is on his way up the mountain to pray.
Here in this sacred place, while he is praying, Jesus’ face takes on a unique glow, is changed, and his clothes become dazzling white. The two greatest prophets of Israel appear beside him.
The disciples, while sleepy, are awake enough to see this vision. It’s an interesting contrast to a scene that will take place soon, when Jesus, in his agony, repeatedly asks them to stay awake with him in the Garden of Gethsemane, but they fall asleep instead. But here, so moved are they by the sight before them, they want to leap into action.
Peter tells Jesus that they should build three dwellings – one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for Jesus. Peter wants to preserve this holy experience to keep it from slipping away. They want to keep Jesus and this moment grounded to this place.
Perhaps Peter’s reaction is at least in part a response and denial to what Jesus’ repeated predictions of his passion and death. His first instinct is to build something around Jesus to hold onto him and to keep things from changing – like my curio cabinet preserves the items inside and keeps me connected to my mother.
We’ve already established that you and I like to preserve what is precious to us; that often means storing it, hiding it, or locking it away. Does our propensity toward memorializing things extend even to Jesus?
Do we build dwellings around Jesus too? Is that what the church is to us? Do we create these buildings that help us hold on to the Jesus that makes us most comfortable, a Jesus that looks and thinks remarkably like us? A Jesus that maybe we even think will serve as a talisman against trouble? Do we box Jesus in and bring him out only when it suits us?
Perhaps the dwelling place we create for Jesus is even a barrier to let those we don’t approve of from knowing the blessing of Jesus for themselves. Perhaps that is why our churches all too often lack the diversity that reflects of the universality of Jesus’ mission of salvation for all people.
My friends, the light that emanates from Jesus in our Gospel today is not metaphorical light. Rather, it is a literal, physical light that shines brilliantly. Jesus himself is the source of the light that glows in what is truly a mountaintop experience for these disciples. It comes from within. It is not a manufactured light or reflected light. The source and quality of the light with which Jesus shone is divine. And the voice the disciples hear is also divine, “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him!”
If we listen, truly listen to Jesus what we will hear is:
·         God desires freedom and life for all nations.
·         God is with us and for us through all the trials of life.
·         God loves us and all of God’s children more than we can imagine, and God desires that we share this love with our neighbor.
·         God will do absolutely anything – including dying on the cross – to save and preserve us from the stain and sentence of sin.
Episcopal priest, Wil Gafney writes, “The worlds in which [the texts this morning] are set include brutal wars, occupation, colonization, slavery, financial exploitation, and interpersonal violence. And yet God chooses to dwell among her people, accompanying them through the perils of a very broken world. These texts testify to God’s presence in our world as well; we are every bit as broken and God is every bit as present. In a world deluged by floods, shaken by architectural and economic collapses, and bruised by violence between persons and nations, the enduring presence and undimmed glory of God is a beacon of hope and comfort.”
God’s final word in this text is a word of command – listen to him. To listen to Jesus is to hear his word, to follow his call to serve as his disciples. To listen to Jesus involves picking up our crosses to follow wherever he leads, knowing that he does not leave us alone. Neither we nor Jesus are meant to be preserved inside buildings, institutions, or the restrictions of human determination.
To listen to Jesus is to know that in him, God pours out God’s heart and love into the world to transform you and me and all who believe in Jesus so that we can follow him, for the life of the world.
Jesus transforms our lives by his very presence – we are transformed as disciples who live our lives like his, caring about what he cares about, persisting against the injustices and sin he himself persisted in speaking out and acting against. Listening to Jesus involves shaping our lives into cruciform witness to his glory and his love.
In Jesus, God has ensured that we are never alone. The same God who created each and every one of us in his own image sees all people as worthwhile, worthy of love, dignity, and respect. We can never look into the face of another – regardless of who they are, and not see the face of one whom God fiercely loves. Through Jesus, God intends to use the gifts God has given us to care for each other and the world.
The reality is that brutal wars, occupation, colonization, slavery, financial exploitation, and interpersonal violence still exist in our world. We are both part of the brokenness, and part of the solution.
Acknowledging our need for a savior, God transforms us into servants of the world, sent to listen to Jesus and reflect the light of his love in our lives. 
As Jesus and the disciples will leave the mountain and its glory behind and descend into the brokenness of the world to live out their callings, the church heeds the call to Lenten disciplines amid the troubles of the world. As we “leave our alleluias” behind today, we pledge to focus not on the dazzle and shine of the light of Christ, but on what it means that he not only descended from heaven to live among us, but that he came down from that mountain again, to complete his journey to the cross.
Despite the pain and the sorrow of what is to come, God is there. The light shining from Jesus upon the mountaintop is light that will defeat sin and death once and for all.
We, who have been baptized in his name, we will remember the God who claims us as his own as we welcome new members among us. May we come down from that mountaintop experience to share our faith and the good news of God’s love not inside these walls, but outside them; not preserving them for our own safe-keeping, but gifting them to all whom we meet.

May it be so.