Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, February 18, 2018

YEAR B 2018 lent 1

Lent 1, 2018
Genesis 9:8-17
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15
Psalm 25:1-9

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Forty days.  In the wilderness.  With wild animals.  Tempted by satan.  Every one of those things is scary.  With some explanation, every one of those things is something we spend our lives avoiding.  It’s fair to say that someone would probably have to force you to go out and face one of those things, let alone all four at once.  And in today’s gospel reading, someone does exactly that to Jesus.

The way it gets translated in our gospel text is, “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”  That’s pretty good.  But I want you to know that the Greek word that becomes “drove” in that sentence is actually ekballo.  Which doesn’t help yet, I know.  But ballo is the Greek word that means “to throw.”  When you add the prefix ek, which means “out,” you get ekballo, to throw out.  So, immediately after his baptism, the Spirit throws Jesus out into the wilderness.  What that looks like, we don’t know, but it definitely suggests that Jesus didn’t necessarily decide to take a walk in the woods, right?

And then, let’s go through that list of scary things I started with.  On the face of it, forty days is a long time, yes, but is it scary?  Does it drive fear into your heart?  I mean, for little children, the phrase “wait till next week” brings howls of protest.  But as adults, we’re pretty okay with forty days.  You know, someone makes an offer on your house to close in forty days (just to pick a totally random hypothetical example out of thin air—or our family’s recent personal experience), and you think, “Yeah, forty days isn’t that long.”  Or maybe even, forty days is not long enough!

But it’s important to look at the number forty from a Biblical perspective, which is what the readers of Mark’s gospel would bring to it.  For forty days and nights it rained until every living thing was killed except Noah and his family.  For forty years the Israelites wandered in the desert without a home.  Moses was on the mountain alone with God for 40 days when he received the Ten Commandments.  Twice!  Jonah warned the people of Ninevah for forty days that God would destroy their city.  Ezekiel laid on His right side for 40 days to symbolize Judah's sins. Elijah went 40 days without food or water at Mount Horeb.  And I feel compelled to point out that a healthy pregnancy typically lasts for forty weeks.  The number forty is usually connected to a time of testing or endurance or judgement or all of the above.  Forty days is a fearful amount of time.

In the wilderness.  For me, personally, this one is right out.  Forty minutes in the woods is 30 minutes too long for me.  As the comedian Jim Gaffagan says, I’m what you call indoorsy.  But for those of you who enjoy being out in nature, I just want to remind you that the wilderness of Jesus’ time and place is not the peaceful woods of Pennsylvania.  You’ve seen pictures, I’m sure, of the desert places around Israel.  Not exactly a walk in Walden woods.  Plus, since there was less than 300 million on the planet at the time, wilderness meant actual wilderness.

With wild animals.  I don’t really need to say much about that, do I?  I mean, you’ve seen Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, right?  Wild animals means exactly that.  There’s no lion tamer or matador walking in front of Jesus, let alone Jacques Cousteau.  It’s just Jesus and the wild animals in the wilderness for forty days until we remember, oh yeah . . .

Tempted by Satan.  This one is a little trickier, because we don’t really know what is meant by the word “satan.”  But that’s a discussion for anther time.  The main thing to remember is that it isn’t a man in a red suit with horns and a pitchfork, no matter what you may have read in Dante’s “Inferno” or seen in Renaissance paintings.  Nonetheless, tempted by satan would certainly be something Jesus would not be eager to run out and do.

So.  Forty days.  In the wilderness.  With wild animals.  Tempted by satan.  And then we get the one good thing here: and the angels waited on him.  Now THAT is an unfortunate translation, especially given our cultural baggage.  Because, what do you picture?  A bunch of creatures with wings and white robes, with a towel over their arm, bringing Jesus silver trays filled with pina coladas, right?  Well, it’s what I picture, anyway.  But there are two Greek words we need to look at here.  (Who knew this would turn into a Greek class?)

The word diakanoun means “ministered.”  We ran into it a couple weeks ago with the healing of Peter’s mother in law.  The second word is angello, which always gets translated as “angels,” which makes us think of chubby little babies with wings, but which actually means “messenger of God.”  We never get a reliable description of angels, but we each carry our own picture in our heads, either from Hallmark cards or artwork we’ve seen.  We don’t know what angels look like; we only know that they are messengers of God.  So, that phrase, “the angels waited on him,” should really say something more like, “the messengers of God ministered to him.”  And that’s important, for a reason we’ll get to in a minute.

To catch us up, then, immediately after his baptism, Jesus was thrown out into the desert for forty days with wild beasts, tempted by satan, and the messengers of God ministered to him.  And what happens after that?  Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Now I want to revisit the specific dangers of those four things that Jesus faced.  You could say that forty days is a dangerous time.  And the wilderness is a dangerous place.  And wild beasts are physical danger.  And being tempted by satan is a mental and spiritual danger.  Dangerous time and place, and dangerous physically, mentally, and spiritually.  Immediately after his baptism, all that Jesus is, as a person, is in danger.  And, in the midst of this, messengers of God ministered to him.  And then, Jesus went out, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Each one of us faces dangers in life.  Not usually all at once, or hopefully not.  But there are times in all our lives when we are under assault by the dangers of time and place, where our physical, mental, and spiritual health are at risk.  Sometimes those dangers are caused by others, sometimes they are caused by our own actions.  And sometimes they happen just because the world is a dangerous place to live.  But, thanks be to God, we have messengers of God who minister to us in our dark times.  If you look around the room this morning, you will see some of them, these messengers of God.

I’ve never been a fan of telling people to do what Jesus does.  You know, asking yourself, What Would Jesus Do?  Because you and I are not Jesus (in case you haven’t noticed).  But I am always a fan of pointing out instances where we can follow Jesus, where he shows us the way.  And today’s gospel lesson is just one such time.

After baptism, it would be really nice just to stay here by the font.  Safe and sound in the knowledge that God has redeemed us through the waters of baptism, and claimed us as God’s own child.  But then, the Spirit throws us out in the dangerous place of daily life, to live in the dangerous times into which we are born.  Along the way, there will be challenges to our physical well being, our mental health, and our spirituality.  But all along the way, we are ministered to by the messengers of God.  And that is what gives us the strength to go out into the world, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

As we begin these forty days of Lent together, may God send messengers to minster to each of us through the hardships of life, so that we can proclaim the good news of God’s love to the world.


Saturday, February 17, 2018

Installation of the Rev. Bridget Coffey

Installation of the Rev. Bridget Coffey
Feb. 17, 2018
Joshua 1:7-9
Psalm 146
Ephesians 4:7, 11-16
John 15:9-16

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

It truly is an honor to be with you all this afternoon.  A month ago, I asked Bridget to send me a sermon to read today, but with all the planning, I guess she forgot.   Bridget and I went to seminary together in New York.  But before seminary, my family and I lived in Maumee for about ten years, which is when I joined the Episcopal Church.  In my journey into the priesthood, members of St. Andrew's were on my various discernment committees.  And just before leaving for seminary, my wife and I attended our first Easter Vigil right here at St. Andrew’s, with all the drama and flair that Lynn McCallum brought to such things.

In my second year of seminary, the incoming class included Bridget Coffey.  We became friends, and eventually both became part of a small clique of marginal Anglo-Catholics . . . like you do.  For complicated reasons, I stayed in seminary an extra year (which I usually refer to as my “victory lap”), and spent most of my senior year hanging around with that small clique of four other future priests.  (And now that Bridget has been called to our Diocese, my secret reunification plan is 3/5 complete!)  So, then, Bridget came to my ordination here in Ohio, and I went to her ordination in Kentucky, and then we went off to our first calls.

I began my priestly work in Brunswick, which is southwest of Cleveland.  As the people and I approached our first Christmas together in the parish, a couple asked me if they could be married at the Christmas Eve service, since the bride’s mother was married on Christmas Eve.  I said, “Let me think about it,” and quickly called my assigned mentor, the Rev. Gay Jennings, current President of the House of Deputies.  (Yes, this is what you call “Episcopalian name dropping.”)  So Gay suggested I would have my answer by just imagining the opening procession of the service.  Where does the bride go?  Before the gospel book?  Behind the priest?  Carrying the cross?  And it was then I learned that some things just don’t go together.  Not all seasons of the church are appropriate for all things.

So let’s talk about having a celebration on the first Saturday in Lent, shall we?  As you know, Lent is a time of fasting and self-reflection, a time when many people give up sweets and treats.  So, a Lenten invitation might end up saying something like, “Come to my party this February!  There will be plenty of bread and water for everybody.  And if things really get hopping, we might even break out the sackcloth and ashes!  Regrets only.”  But . . . there is a distinct difference between a celebration and a party, when you think about it.  We might have a party for New Year’s Eve, but we have a Celebration of Life to remember a loved one.  While a fraternity might party till dawn, you and I gather together to celebrate the Eucharist at an Easter Vigil.  And though there might well be tables full of sweets awaiting us here in the parish hall, we are here today to Celebrate a New Ministry.

So, speaking of celebrating during Lent, let’s talk about commandments.  Many churches begin their services during Lent by reading The Decalog.  (Which is a fancy word for the Ten Commandments.)  The Ten Commandments, of course, are the list of things God gave to Moses up on Mt. Sinai.  If you ask most people about the Ten Commandments, they will tell you they’re a list of things that God says you shall and shall not do.  You know, like some basic guardrails of human behavior.  Most people think of the Ten Commandments as a list of dos and don’ts, all designed to bring the party down.  You know, like a commandment puts limits of the fun.  “I hereby command you to stop enjoying life.”

I think when we hear the word “commandment,” we all tense up a little.  Because we think of  a “commandment” as something against our will, or something we’re going to fail at.  Either it’s a list of rules we can’t keep, or it’s some requirement that is going to take away our fun.  We’re not good with commandments, especially when we know we can’t keep them.  That’s why the word makes us nervous.

In the opening chapter of Joshua, part of which we heard in our first reading, God tells Joshua to be “careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left.”  So, Joshua, stick to the commandments that I gave to Moses, plus the other rules.  And then, following that, there’s another command: “I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

It feels a little strange to be commanded to be strong and courageous, doesn’t it?  I mean, if it were that simple, we could all be strong and courageous by sheer will, right?  But notice that the command to be strong and courageous is because the Lord your God is with you.  It is not strength and courage based on self-confidence and internet motivational courses; it is the reliance on God that gives strength and courage.  So, phew, it turns out that commandment comes with a set of tools and instructions.

In the Gospel reading from John, which we just heard, Jesus uses the word “commandment” three times.  And with such a short reading, that’s a lot!  And, as is typical of John’s Gospel, there’s a lot of logic and if/then kind of stuff going on.  John is often hard to follow for that very reason.  Like you have to pick it apart to see what he is saying.  And, as the preacher, today it is my job to do the picking.

Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”  That’s pretty straight forward, right?  Jesus loves us like the Father loves him, and he says: abide in his love.  Got it.  So . . . How exactly do we abide in his love?  Well, Jesus helpfully answers our question: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”  Uh oh.  This If and Then sound like bad news, and I think it starts to make us sweat a little.  Because now there’s a condition attached, right?  And the condition is attached to our old nemesis, “commandment.”  IF we keep the commandments of Jesus, THEN we will abide in his love.

We’re all pretty sure Jesus’ commandments are a mile long, based on the Sermon on the Mount.  And then, Jesus ratchets it up by saying, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”  So now, on top of if, then, and commandments, we’ve got long-term goals, right?  We will abide in his love, IF we keep his commandments.  And if we keep his commandments,  our joy will be complete.  So there’s a lot riding on getting this right, right?   We would like to abide in Jesus.  We would hope to keep his commandments.  And we certainly want for our joy to be complete.  Okay.  Alright.  Let’s have it Jesus.  What are your commandments?  Seriously, just go ahead and give us the bad news.

And Jesus says, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  Seriously?  That’s it?  Nothing about shellfish or coveting or gluttony?  Nothing about adultery in our hearts and killing with evil thoughts?  Just . . . love one another?  Oh, wait.  Love one another as you have loved us.  You knew there had to be a catch, right?  We’ve got to see what it means to love like Jesus loves.  So, let’s consider the question:  How does Jesus love us?

And the answer is, unconditionally.  Jesus loves you unconditionally, whether you like it or not.  If we love one another unconditionally, we will be keeping the commandment of Jesus, and we will abide in his love, and our joy will be complete.  It’s that simple.  Well, maybe simple is the wrong word.  I mean, it’s that straight forward.  Love one another unconditionally, and your joy will be complete, because you will abide in the love of Jesus.

Rev. Bridget Coffey, People of St. Andrew’s, we all want your joy to be complete.  And so we ask you to follow the commandment of Jesus: Love one another as Jesus has loved you.  Be patient with one another.  Give each other the benefit of the doubt.  Laugh and cry together, dance and pray together.  But above all else, love one another, as Jesus has loved you.

Your New Ministry together is     indeed something to celebrate.  We are excited for you, and we will support you in everything you do.  But I can tell you right now, we absolutely draw the line at having a wedding on Christmas Eve.


Sunday, February 11, 2018

YEAR B 2018 last sunday after epiphany

Last Sunday after Epiphany, 2018
2 Kings 2:1-12
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Psalm 50:1-6
Mark 9:2-9

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So today is what we call, The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, which is also the sixth Sunday after Epiphany.  And, when was Epiphany, you may ask?  Twelve days after Christmas, or, you know, January 6th.  There are certain times in the church year where we count time in relationship to significant days that have passed.  The Sundays after Epiphany is one of these times.  The season after Pentecost is another one.  (Think, green.)

Epiphany is sometimes called the season of light, because of the star that led the Magi to the manger.  And the end of Epiphany is yet another time where the church is about to be intentionally out-of-step with the world.  The biggest example of that rebellion is at Christmas; when the world is at its darkest—seasonally—we talk about the light.  (That’s not unique to Christianity of course, since much of our Christmas symbolism is lifted straight out of pagan traditions.)  But the point is, in the midst of darkness, we talk about light.  There’s a poetic balance in this.

And now, later this week, we will enter into the season of Lent.  Funny thing is, as the days are growing longer, and a rodent in Pennsylvania has predicted our weather patterns, the church makes a decisive move into darkness, or, at least, contemplation.  The world is turning toward light and rebirth, and we will start focusing on our mortality and sinfulness.  There’s a poetic balance in this too.

Plus, there’s a tradition in the church during Lent to downplay the beautiful things.  We will figuratively bury the Alleluia (which is why I overused the word picking the hymns this morning--last call!); we will cover all the shiny crosses; we will stop with all the chanting and singing the Gloria.  In a sense, we will focus on the earthiness of things, the absence of glory.  And to get us ready for that journey into a somber six weeks, we get today’s gospel reading:  What we commonly call, The Transfiguration of Jesus.  And just to make things confusing, I want to note that the actual Feast of Transfiguration is observed on August 6th in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches, while Lutherans and Methodists will be celebrating that feast today.  So, for us, this is not Transfiguration Sunday, and yet, we still get this gospel reading.  We press on . . .

The reason I started with all that church-year light-and-dark stuff is because I want to be sure we notice the combination of glory and earthly in this gospel text.  If I ask you what you remember about that story, you’ll probably say the part where Jesus was glowing more brightly than anyone could have bleached a cloth.  Or, you might remember that Moses and Elijah are suddenly standing next to him.  Or, if you’re more practically minded, you were wondering where exactly Peter was going to get a hammer and nails, let alone wood to build three dwellings on the mountain.

But, really, the most startling thing has to be Moses and Elijah and the Transfiguration of Jesus, right?  Jesus is revealed in all his glory, right along with Moses and Elijah, two of God’s most celebrated servants, heroes of the faith.  It’s almost like heaven has come down to the top of this mountain, and the disciples are there to witness it.  The glory of Jesus is revealed!  Such a vision!  And the message they get is not, “Behold the glory of the Lord!”  The message is not, “Check out this vision of awesomeness!”  No, the message they get is, “Listen to him.”

It’s like someone takes you to the Louvre in Paris and says, “Listen to these paintings!”  Or like I take my wife up to Lake Erie because she loves sunsets, and I sit her down a rock, and say, “now close your eyes.”  What is going on here?

And the answer is, the disciples are really good at watching, but not so good at listening.  In Mark’s gospel, over and over Jesus says, “Let those who have ears listen.”  He says that like five times.  Why?  Well, here’s why:  Every time Jesus tries to tell the disciples that he must suffer and die they either don’t get it, or they say they don’t want to hear it.  Just a few verses before the reading we heard today, Jesus tells his disciples that he must suffer and die, and Peter takes him aside and rebukes him saying, this must never happen.  And now, next thing you know, they’re up on the mountain with a loud voice saying, “Listen to him.”

But up on that mountain, oh the disciples see the glory of Jesus!  Brighter than bright.  Moses and Elijah.  Let’s build some houses and stay right here where everything is beautiful.  We love the glory of Jesus, and we don’t want to hear about any suffering.  And then—poof—everything is back to normal, and the disciples are alone with Jesus, standing on the mountain.  No glory, no Moses and Elijah, just them.  And then they come back down the mountain, and Jesus tells them not to tell anyone about what they saw until he has risen from the dead.

Now consider this for a moment . . . If that experience up on the mountain with Moses and Elijah and the glorious Jesus was like a glimpse of heaven, then Jesus is now coming down from heaven.  You could almost put it like this:  for us and for our salivation, he came down from heaven.  Jesus is coming down the mountain to where you and I are, because we cannot climb the mountain to see his glory.  We can’t go up, so Jesus is coming down to get us.  And guess what?  He brings his glory with him.  Jesus doesn’t stop being God when he comes down the mountain.  It’s not like a magic switch went on and off up there on the mountain.  Jesus is still Jesus.

But, like the disciples, we naturally prefer the glory to the suffering and death.  We are all very good at pretending death can be kept away, or avoided.  Easter is a lot better than Good Friday.  We’d prefer happy days every day, if you don’t mind, Jesus.  Fortunately, for us, it’s not an either or kind of thing.  Jesus is truly God and truly man.  And by going to the grave for us, Jesus overcomes the grave for us.  We can’t get to Easter without going through Good Friday.  And Jesus doesn’t get to the salvation of all without dying a real death himself.  To give it a folksy spin, you’ve got to take the good with the bad.  Or, bad with the good.  However that goes.

So here’s something to ponder during Lent:  We cover the beautiful shiny objects during this upcoming contemplative season, but they’re still there.  Still beautiful, still glorious.  Jesus comes down the mountain with the disciples to eat his meals and bathe in the river, but he is still God.  Still beautiful, still glorious.  The glory is still there, and the voice tells us to stop looking and listen.  Listen to Jesus.

And  here’s an even better way to think of it.  Every Sunday we gather to celebrate the Eucharist together.  It is a foretaste of the feast to come.  And at this meal, we enter into an eternal feast with the saints of every time and every place, and the whole company of heaven, gathered around the throne of God singing Holy Holy Holy!  The feast of victory for our God.  The passover from death into life.  The holy food and drink of new and unending life in him.

And how do we partake of this most magnificent meal?  In the earthiest of ways.  Not on glorious, expensive china, but in our regular, personal hands.  A small piece of bread and a sip of wine.  And that bread and that wine remind us that the only reason we are sharing in this feast, the only reason this whole thing even works is because of the last meal Jesus ate with his friends, as he was preparing to go to the cross on our behalf.  In this glorious meal, we are remembering his death.  In our celebration of life we are commemorating his descent among the dead.

Jesus was transfigured in heavenly glory on the mountain, yes.  But more importantly, for us, and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, so that we might share in his victory over the grave.  May God give us the grace to listen to this beloved son, and to trust in his word, that he has brought —and continues to bring—life out of death.


Sunday, February 4, 2018

YEAR B 2018 epiphany 5

Epiphany 5, 2018
Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-12, 21c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Back when our kids were in grade school, I found myself with an awful combination of pneumonia and my back being all out of alignment, and I spent about a week on the floor, lying on my back.  Throwing out your back, along with pneumonia is kind of a perfect storm . . . except for the perfect part.  From there, it was a painful, slow recovery, but I don’t remember much about the whole thing.  Or at least not the pain part of it.  (If humans actually could remember pain, no woman would ever have a second child.)

But the one thing that does stick in my mind—the most horrible part of it all—was when my children would come running past where I lay on the floor, and then slow down so as not to disturb me.  It honestly broke my heart, and it felt horribly isolating.  I should’ve been up and running around the house, tormenting their mother right along with them.  Instead, I was covered in blankets, coughing and in pain, cut-off from all the joys of being with my family.

Obviously, I did recover.  But there’s a similarity between my story and today’s gospel story, the healing of Simon’s mother in law.  To remind you of the setup, it is the Sabbath day.  Jesus has just finished teaching in the synagogue, and walks over to the house where Simon’s mother-in-law is lying sick with a fever.  We’re not told whose house it is, but it is likely that Simon and his wife (and possibly his brother Andrew) would all have been living in the house with Simon’s mother-in-law, and other relatives as well.  That arrangement was quite common in those days, and it would’ve meant that Simon’s mother-in-law, the Matriarch would be in charge of hospitality.  It would be her honor in the household community to welcome visitors, to arrange for food, and so on.

But she is sick in bed.  She is unable to welcome Jesus and the others.  She is unable to do much of anything except be covered in blankets, cut-off from all the joys of being with her family, and her special place within it.  The Sabbath meal is a big event in any Jewish home, and to be excluded from it is no small thing.  For the person in charge to be excluded is just unthinkable.  Simon’s mother-in-law is not only sick, but probably heartbroken and distressed as well.

And as we heard, the four disciples told Jesus about the sick woman, and Jesus goes immediately to her.  He grasps her hand, raises her up, the fever leaves her, and she serves them.

Now we have to deal for a moment with this idea that “she serves them.”  I grew up in a house of four boys.  I know that my own mother’s read on this would be that Jesus had to heal Simon’s mother-in-law because he was hungry, and these five men would be incapable of making a sandwich on their own.  Maybe true.  Or, maybe by the time Simon’s mother answers all the questions about where everything is in the kitchen, she would just end up going to the kitchen and cooking, despite being sick.

But this cynical read overlooks the word that is used in the text.  The word in Greek is diaconei, which gets translated as “she served them.”  You can probably guess that this word, diaconei is related to our word, deacon.  And, though our Deacons may feed people, they are certainly more than short-order cooks.  Simon’s mother-in-law does not rise up to make a sandwich for the guests.  She begins to serve them, to minister to them.  Which might include making food, sure, but definitely means much more than that.  She rises up to perform her ministry in the house.

She is taken by the hand and healed, and is restored to her place in the community.  She is raised to join in the celebration.  Jesus comes to this woman in a physical and tangible way.  Not with magic words, spoken from across the room, but with a healing touch.  Where she had been excluded from the Sabbath meal, restoration to the household means restoration to the meal.

She is not healed so that she might once again be a highly functioning individual, seeking out her personal destiny.  She is not healed to cook up some food for five hungry men who don’t know their way around a kitchen.  She is healed in order to retake her place in the community.  And her response to that healing takes the form of service, to Jesus and the other guests in the house.

We can contrast this healing with the healing of the nameless crowd that happens later that night.  Here, we are told, the whole city gathers at the door of the house, and Jesus heals many and casts out demons, and then all the healed people just go on home.  Flashy, yes, but all we see is a crowd getting healed.  At the end of this long day, Jesus rises early and goes off by himself to pray.  Can he a get a moment’s rest?  No, he cannot.  Here come the disciples, telling him that “everyone is looking for you.”  The disciples seem to miss the point of the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law.  There’s the suggestion here of Jesus being some side-show miracle healer, rather than the one who brings fullness of life. 

There’s a hint that the disciples want the rock star Jesus to come back and bask in the glow of his awesome accomplishments.  They say, everyone is looking for you.  And Jesus responds, then let’s go somewhere else.  He has no intention of setting up Jesus’ Magical Healing Shop in the house next to the synagogue.  Jesus seems to be trying to tell them that there is more to all this than “fixing” people.  Jesus wants to go into the neighboring towns so that he “may proclaim the message there also.”

What message?  The message of the good news.  That God has come near.  That healing and rejoining the community are possible.  The mighty and fearsome God we heard about in Isaiah has come to heal people face to face.  God raises up by the touch of Jesus’ hand, that people might then minister to those around them.  The kingdom of heaven has come near.  To stand around the door of the house and get a dose of healing misses the point.  To be brought to physical wholeness is only half the story.  The message to be proclaimed throughout the surrounding cities is seen in the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, not in the clamoring crowd.  Jesus reaches out, raises up, and restores community.

God reaches out to us in this same way, takes our hand, raises us up, and restores community.  In Jesus, we are brought back to community--to life in fact--and can take up our unique place, fulfilling our own roles, living out our own parts to play in the Sabbath celebration.

There are times when each of us is debilitated by suffering and isolation.  Jesus meets us where we are: lying on the floor, or sitting in these pews; suffering in our beds at night, or worrying behind a desk at work.  Jesus offers himself by stretching out his hand to raise us to new life.  But it’s important to note, we are not raised back to life so that we can continue to live in our little isolated worlds.  The point of being healed is to rejoin the community, because that is where we are nourished and comforted and carried.

When we are too weak to stand, Jesus raises us up.  When we are isolated in our pain, Jesus brings us back into the fold.  And when we feel we cannot carry on, we are carried by those around us.  There are days when any one of us walks in that door and can barely stand.  Days when our personal suffering is overwhelming.  Days when the last thing you want to do is sing or pray.  And on those days, the household sings and prays for you.  You are carried on a song and a prayer because you don’t have one of your own.  The voices of those around you is the song you cannot sing, the prayer you cannot pray, and the congregation is speaking for you.  The community of Jesus carries you through.

And on those days, and on this day, Jesus feeds a meal, ministers to us in a body broken and in blood poured out.  This God who knows the names of the stars and puts them in their place, knows your name, meets us here in this place, in the most personal way: in food and drink.  We are raised up, and restored to health together, so that we might rise up and minister to those around us together.


Sunday, January 28, 2018

YEAR B 2018 feast of st. timothy

St. Timothy, 2018
Isaiah 42:5-9
Acts 15:22-26, 30-33, 16:1-5
John 10:1-10
Psalm 112:1-9

May Almighty God, who called Timothy to lay a foundation of faith for the Church make us living stones built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

So here we are once again, celebrating our patron saint: Timothy.  It occurred to me this year that I should find out why we’re named after Timothy, since there might be something good there to work with.  I mean, we all know the city is named after the French Bishop Jean-Baptiste Massillon, right?  Apparently because Eliza Duncan enjoyed reading his sermons.  So, I thought maybe there’s some similar little nugget in the naming of our parish.  But, so far, I’ve got nothing.  Plus, as far as I can tell, the Duncans were Presbyterians, so why would they start an Episcopal Church?  Mysteries abound.

So then I started thinking, well, what do we know about St. Timothy himself?  I mean, other than that he makes a fine stained glass image over the doorway over there.   But here also, there’s not as much as we think.  The stuff about his martyrdom at the hands of some crazy revelers is what scholars call “apocryphal,” which is fancy talk for “who knows?”  Mainly what we know about St. Timothy is what was written to him, from the Apostle Paul, you know, in 1st and 2nd Timothy.  We also get a few mentions of him elsewhere, where Paul tells other people that he’s glad to have Timothy by his side.  And, of course, we also have a few times he comes up in the book of Acts, like the one we heard read just a few minutes ago.

And here’s what we know from that story:  Timothy’s mother was a devout Jew.  But Timothy’s father was a Greek, meaning Timothy would not have been circumcised as a baby, and everyone would know that, where he and Paul were headed.  Apparently, Paul was afraid that people wouldn’t listen to Timothy’s testimony if he wasn’t following the Jewish law.  Soooo . . .

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a bris, a Jewish circumcision, but Cristin and I have.  Once.  We were in seminary in New York, and one of my classmates and her husband decided to have their little baby boy circumcised by a Jewish rabbi, for who knows what reason.  I remember the Rabbi was really personable, and was wearing a Yankees cap instead of a yarmulke.  Everything was fun and celebratory until the actual moment of circumcision, at which point . . . things were definitely no longer fun and celebratory.  The baby was crying, the parents were crying, and the rest of us were reaching for the wine, thinking, “I’m never coming to one of these again.”

I tell you that story to remind you what’s involved and to give a little context for what we just heard in the book of Acts:   “Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.”  I will just leave that to stand on its own, since you all know what it means.  But the message is very clear:  Timothy clearly had an astonishing level of commitment to spreading the gospel, and was willing to do whatever was necessary.  He knew that people would not listen to him unless he became one of them, followers of the Law of Moses.  And so . . . he became one.

It makes me wonder, what is it in our life together that prevents people from hearing the gospel?  I don’t have any specific answer to that question, but it is worth pondering from time to time.  How can we convince people that we are the same as them—sinners in need of a savior?  Well, we could start with noticing that Timothy trusted in God to lead him to answer that question.  And there are so many things in today’s lessons that point us in that direction.

From Isaiah:  God says, “I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.”  That’s a very good start!  And the Psalm we read . . . so much in there to ponder there.  And then, of course, the gospel.  Jesus says, “I am the gate.  Whoever enters by me will be saved, and they will come in and go out and find pasture.”  Over and over in these lessons I see one message coming together, and it is this:  We do not need to be afraid, because God is leading us.

You and I are called to do what we can, in the place where we are, with the gifts we have been given.  We do not not need to be worried, even in the midst of great challenges.  We are not alone because God has taken us by the hand.  We do not need to be afraid because we have entered by the gate of Jesus, and we are saved, and will be sent out to find pasture.

And so, what about Timothy?  What else do we know about our patron saint?  Well it’s interesting to me that Timothy is known more for being written to than for writing anything himself.  There are 66 books in the Bible, and Timothy’s name is on two of them.  That’s pretty good.  And those two letters to Timothy are full of advice and guidance from Paul.  His first letter to Timothy is just sort of a letter of encouragement, a pep talk if you will, to carry on the ministry he is doing in Ephesus.

Paul’s second letter to Timothy is quite different, and suggests that Timothy has become perhaps a little despondent and discouraged, as was Paul himself, since he is writing this letter from prison, awaiting execution.  Paul hoped that Timothy would be the one to carry on his ministry, and so he’s a little more direct in the second letter, telling Timothy to be strong, hold on to good doctrine, and preach the gospel.  It is interesting to read these letters as though they are written to us, here at St. Timothy’s Church.  Because, in a very real sense, we are the ones still carrying on the mission of Paul.  Spreading the gospel through worship, hospitality, and outreach.

Paul tells us, “from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”  While that’s probably overstating it for most of us, it’s probably kind of true for those of us who were raised in the church.  We have a long history of hearing the scripture being read and quoted.  And for those who came to Christianity later in life, the weekly readings continue to make us wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

And together, you and I have inherited a building and a reputation here in Massillon, whether we like it or not.  Those who have gone before us were neither all good nor all bad.  They were simple messy complex beautiful people: just like you and me.  They did what they could, in the place where they lived, using the gifts they had been given:  just like you and me.

For whatever reason, they named the place after St. Timothy, and that is why we honor him on this day.  May Almighty God, who called Timothy to lay a foundation of faith for the Church make us living stones built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

YEAR B 2018 epiphany 3

Epiphany 3, 2018
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:6-14
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

First off, I want to acknowledge that—taken out of context—the Epistle readings from 1 Corinthians the past two weeks have been really bizarre.  I just want you to know that I also notice that, and maybe some day we’ll have some conversations about those readings.  As my Greek professor used to say, “Sometimes the problem isn’t you; sometimes the problem is Paul.”  But for today, we’ve only got so much time, so let’s move on to the movies . . .

I don’t know if you’ve seen or heard of the movie, Moneyball, so I’ll give you a brief idea of the main point of the movie.  In 2002, a young Yale grad named Peter Brand develops a new method of assessing baseball players based on their On-Base-Percentage.  It’s not all that radical, when you think about it: if a player can get on a base, there’s a chance they can score.  If a player does not get on base, they cannot possibly score.  And, though it goes without saying, I’ll go ahead and say it: the team that scores the most, wins the game.

What is radical about his approach is that it flies in the face of assessing players based on their natural talent and occasional dramatic plays.  One walk-off grand slam in a year is what coaches and fans remember, as opposed to a consistent record of reaching first base.  Or, before Brand’s method changed all the rules, anyway.  Now everyone accepts this idea that On-Base-Percentage is what matters . . . Though, of course, teams still pay ridiculous amounts for a player who sometimes has a streak of dramatic homeruns, whether or not he produces in the post season; I won’t mention any Cleveland baseball teams by name.

And, you know, deep down, we don’t want for Brand’s method to be true.  We want our teams to pick players based on drama, and showmanship, and clutch plays.  We want to see walk-off grand slams, even if it means the team never makes the playoffs.  We’d happily take three losses for one memorable game-winning homerun.  We want to see the drama, the heart-stopping come-from-behind victory.  That’s what we remember, rather than the long slow steady drip of games won by 1 or 2 runs.  Brand’s On Base Percentage may get you into the post season, sure, but who can remember any of those daily tiny wins along the way?

We have this tendency in everything, when you think about it.  We want our political candidate to win by a landslide, rather than simply getting enough votes.  We remember the story of the firefighters who dramatically rescue the family from their burning house, but keeping a fire extinguisher near your stove isn’t exactly front-page news.  We remember the big splashy meals at Thanksgiving or Anniversaries out, but it is the daily meals of pasta or grilled cheese that sustain us the other 363 days of the year.  What we remember is not the steady drip of sustenance; what we remember is the giant supposedly life-changing moments that are a flash in the pan.

So, in today’s first reading, from the book of Jonah, God sends Jonah to the city of Ninevah, “an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across.”    Jonah walks the streets proclaiming utter destruction in forty days.  Jonah, one man, walking through the city telling people to repent.  Imagine the insurmountable task here.  With no bullhorn, no twitter account, no conceivable way to tell all these people to change their ways.

But then we hear, “the people of Ninevah proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.  When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”  Hooray!!!!  Just in the nick of time!  And their story gets passed down to us because it is so dramatic, like a walk-off grand slam in the playoffs!  We love this kind of story, don’t we?  A huge city saved from the brink of disaster.  People slapping each other on the back, saying “Well THAT was a close one,” and heading off to the pub to celebrate.

We.  Love.  Drama.  I know, we all say that we prefer a steady stable world where things happen in small predictable ways, but come on.  Nobody really enjoys life-insurance actuary tables.  Not even someone who works with actuary tables . . . though I may be projecting on that one.  We need stability and predictability in order to have peace in our lives, it’s true.  But we also need a little splashy drama to keep life interesting.  All of which leads me to today’s Gospel reading, from the book of Mark.

As you may recall from a couple weeks ago, Mark’s Gospel jumps right in with Jesus’ being baptized.  No shepherds, no angels, no wisemen.  Jesus gets baptized, is pushed off into the desert, and then suddenly is walking by the Sea of Galilee calling his first disciples, as we heard in today’s reading.  We’re not even out of the first chapter yet, and Jesus has already been baptized, tempted by Satan, and called four out of 12 disciples.  In Mark’s gospel, things happen fast.  And that makes for a good story.  A dramatic story.  A walk-off grand slam kind of story.

But let’s stop for a moment to consider things from the disciples’ perspective here.  Simon, Andrew, James, and John are all fishermen.  Though we like to imagine them as entrepreneurs, out there catching fish and selling them for what the market will bear, it didn’t work that way in those days.  First off, the Emperor owned the lake, and if you wanted to get fish out of it, you had to sign a lease, which meant agreeing to give the majority of what you caught to the syndicate, who would then pass it up the chain in the form of taxes.  A fisherman in Jesus’ time was more like a peasant farmer than like a tuna-boat operator.  So, the first thing to remember is, these guys were not businessmen.

Secondly, these four have no idea who Jesus is.  You and I know the story, and we read back into it wearing our Resurrection Goggles.  But these fishermen are working along, catching fish and mending nets, and this guy walks by and says “follow me,” and they follow him.  I hate to sound cynical, but this is ridiculous!  Again, we tend to imagine the disciples carefully considering whether or not they should follow God in the flesh, and then reasonably conclude that they should give up their business and follow the Savior of the world.  But, we need to remember, they have no idea how the story ends.  They have not seen one miracle, one healing, one anything.  And yet they drop their nets and follow him.  They walk away from the predictable drudgery of their lives to follow someone they just met.  They leave their families behind and start following a stranger passing along the shore.

And.  We.  Love.  This!  We love it so much that we want to have a story like this for ourselves, and some of us do.  We love hearing the testimony of friends who have big dramatic conversions.  We want to hear stories from people who once were lost, but now are found, were blind but now they see.

But, I know, preachers use this text to make people uncertain whether their conversion to Jesus was dramatic enough.  I’ve heard them.  How can you know you are saved if you haven’t given up everything to follow Jesus?  How can you know you’re truly following Jesus if you haven’t dropped your net, forsaking your friends and family to begin a new life following Jesus?  If you don’t have a detailed The Day I Got Saved story to tell, how can you be sure?  . . . Which leads us back to baseball.

We remember the big dramatic grand slam that wins the game.  But what wins the season is the slow steady drip of getting on base, one inning at a time.  We remember the big splashy once-a-year meals by candlelight or in fancy restaurants, but what sustains us is the regular, predictable nightly meals of home-made soups and boring casseroles.  We remember the exciting stories of firefighters saving families from near-death disasters, but what keeps us safe is changing the batteries in our smoke detectors.  And, though we love to hear a story about some former drug-addict criminal who is now a missionary overseas, what keeps the gospel alive is the steady day-to-day conviction of people who believe just a little bit more than they disbelieve.

The mark of faith is not how dramatic your conversion was.  The mark of faith is the slow steady drip of one day at a time, one decision at a time, one daily choice to remember your baptism, and to know that Jesus has called you to follow him on the path that leads to life.  We are suckers for a big conversion story, sure.  But you do not need to have a big conversion of faith in order to know that you are loved.  You simply need to reach out your hands and receive the one who gives us his body and blood: the slow steady drip of bread and wine, week by week, year by year, which sustains us over the course of our lives, and which is the reassurance that you are forgiven and loved, in the most dramatic way imaginable.


Sunday, January 14, 2018

YEAR B 2018 epiphany 2

Epiphany 2, 2018
1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20)
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

When someone you were just talking about shows up, you might find yourself saying, “Speak of the devil,” or the full phrase, “Speak of the devil, and he shall appear.”  Apparently, this thing happens in every country and culture, because pretty much everybody has an expression for the times when this happens.  Mostly, people speak of the devil and he appears, or sometimes, speak of the devil and you shall see his tail.  Alternatively, lots of people say, speak of the wolf and he’s at the door.  And in dark Scandinavian countries, they say speak of the sun and it will shine.  (For obvious reasons.)  To the Irish the expression is, Everything comes when it's talked about, except a fox and a corpse.  But my absolute favorite comes to us from Yiddish, when someone you were just talking about shows up, they say, "We should have talked about the Messiah.”

That last one is a really clever twist.  Because it implies not only that we could have brought the Messiah at last, but also that we should have been speaking of the Messiah.  As in, if we’d been doing what we were supposed to be doing, we’d finally have salvation, instead of having this random schmo walk into the room.  And there’s a connection to that in the Gospel reading we just heard, though it requires us to sort of start at the end and work backwards.

Nathaniel asks Jesus, “Where did you get to know me?”  And Jesus says, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replies, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”  Now, if you’re anything like me, this exchange strikes you as strange, if not downright bizarre.  So, you have to go do some reading up to make sense of it.  Well, I mean, if you’re the one preaching you do.  Here’s the in-a-nutshell version . . .

The fig tree has a long history of symbolic meaning in the Hebrew scriptures (which we won’t go into right now), and it was common in Jesus’ day to pray under fig trees, especially for rabbinical students.  In first-century Judaism, Rabbis taught that “he who prays and does not pray for the coming of the Messiah has not prayed at all.”  Soooo . . . some scholars maintain that Nathaniel was perhaps praying under the fig tree that the Messiah would come and—speak of the devil—there’s Jesus!  Nathanael replies, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”  It makes total sense, doesn’t it?  Of course, it’s all just speculation, but it’s such excellent speculation that I have chosen to believe it.  So there.

Let’s go back to today’s Old Testament reading.  As we heard, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”  Meaning, it wasn’t people’s first assumption that an unknown voice calling to them would be the voice of God.  Those were the days, huh?  So Eli has to convince the young Saul that the voice is from God, and that he should wait for what God has to say to him.  And what little Saul hears is that Eli will be punished for not correcting his wayward children.  Of course, the young boy is afraid to tell Eli this news, but with some threats from the old man, he finally does.  And even though it is a word of condemnation, Eli responds, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

There are a couple connections to today’s gospel that I want to point out here.  One, is that God uses people to get the message to other people.  From one person to another.  Phillip goes to Nathaniel, just as Saul goes to Eli.  And second, in response to the bad news from Saul, Eli says, “It is the Lord.”  And, in response to seeing the good news of Jesus, Nathaniel says, “You are the son of God, the King of Israel.”  That is, both of them recognize that God is speaking to them because of other people.  Encounters with God often happen through other people, is the point I’m trying to make here.

So, now, back to the gospel reading.  I love that it starts right out with, “Jesus decided to go to Galilee.”  Like, I decided to go to the store.  And then, as we heard, Jesus found Phillip.  It’s important to note that it’s not the other way around.  Phillip, as far as we know, is not looking for Jesus, or hoping to find him.  No, Jesus decided to go to Galilee and found Phillip.  But when Phillip goes to Nathaniel he says, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”  Right off the bat, Phillip seems to have forgotten who found whom, right?  Jesus finds Phillip, and Phillip says we have found Jesus.

Anyway, then we get that hilarious line from Nathaniel: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  It’s quite a coincidence of timing, this week, to hear someone questioning whether anything of value can come out of a place they don’t happen to respect.  But we’re all familiar with that kind of thinking, especially if we’ve seen the news lately.  Writing off entire cities, or even countries because of our own personal prejudices.  In a less dramatic way, the last Sunday in October, opposing football fans ask that kind of question about Massillon and Canton.  Can anything good come out of that other place?  It all grows out of trying try to build ourselves up by putting others down.  Human nature 101.

But Phillip does something we don’t naturally do when faced with this kind of criticism.  To be honest, I think my immediate response to his question would have been to say, “Listen, Nate.  Nazareth is a town with a lot going on.  There’s, like, a 7,000 year old funerary and cultic center with giant headstones made of out of white plaster.  And stuff.”  But Phillip does not try to defend Nazareth.  He doesn’t take the red herring bait offered up by his fig-tree friend.  But neither does Phillip offer up a reasoned defense for why this Jesus he just met is in fact the one about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote.  That is, he doesn’t “evangelize,” to use our modern term.  No, instead Phillip says, “Come and see.”  That’s it:  Come and see.

On some level, a preacher’s job is simply to say to you all, “We have found the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth.  And—get this—he will meet you in the bread and wine at this Altar, because that’s where he promised to be.”  And then you might find yourself thinking, “Really.  Can anything good come out of a box of wafers and a bottle of port wine?”  And I could choose to explain to you that wafers of very good quality come out of boxes, and that the port wine is from a monastery in California.  Or, I could offer you a detailed explanation of the theological rationale starting with Aristotle through Thomas Aquinas and the Anglican Reformers and the British Tractarians and the framers of the 1979 Prayer Book explaining to you why I believe Jesus is truly present in the place he has promised to be.

Or, best of all, I could follow Phillip’s lead and simply say to you, “Come and see.”

Come and see that God welcomes you to this meal, God restores you to wholeness, and God sends you out into the world to say to everyone you meet, “We have found Jesus!  Come and see.”