Exodus 14:19-31, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35
A Sermon by the Rev. Anne O. Weatherholt, for Proper 19 A, September 17, 2017
Today’s lessons are full of people who find themselves in impossible situations! As I was listening to the Holy Spirit this week, I found it hard not to get bogged down like the wheels of the Egyptian chariots! These are not easy lessons; they are hard going. But like so many parts of the Bible, these lessons are worth the time and the trouble to spend some time, to thoughtfully consider, and to admit even as we are trying to grow and live as Christians that there is plenty we still don’t understand.
First off: let me set some parameters: Or as I have been encountering on my drives to and from Hancock, allow me to point out some large, orange construction barrels – directing us away from hazards:
The first barrel points out the hazard to always identify with the persecuted: The Hebrews escaping from those dastardly Egyptians, the Christians in Paul’s letter who have been unfairly judged by others, or the debtor in Jesus’ parable who is unfairly thrown into prison for having a small debt by the debtor who has been forgiven a humongous debt, or perhaps the hapless Peter who really wants to know just HOW many times must I forgive the one who has sinned against me? Too, often, we land on what we think is the obvious lesson – or perhaps the one we have heard the most – and miss what might be a deeper message of REALLY Good News.
The second cautionary barrel directs us away from the hazard where we ignore language about slavery and the abuse of power found in Exodus and the Gospel of Matthew, remembering that Paul, too, used the word “slave” when referring to his listeners – some of whom WERE enslaved persons! This week, St. Mark’s is sponsoring a seminar about Human Trafficking – and as you know, I am called upon to lead workshops for faith leaders on the issue of the recognition and prevention of Domestic Violence. There are people living in this very community who are treated as if they were enslaved – or may even be held in a kind of modern-day slavery—who live in fear and intimidation without the freedom to act or respond without fear of retribution for themselves or the ones they love. And there are others who use power as an excuse for keeping others in check; whose method of operating has to do with power and control of those who are close to them.
Which leads us to the third cautionary barrel and hazard: our tendency to cheapen the grace and forgiveness offered by God through Jesus Christ; to make forgiveness a kind of commodity that we “pay” for belonging to Christ; or make forgiveness into a simple parable – [like the one I hear most often “forgive and forget;” where did that come from? Not from the Bible!!!], without taking into account the issue of justice, freedom and the privilege to live a peaceful life. So, like the driver on the road, pointed into the one-lane traffic during repaving or reorganizing the traffic pattern (Thank you, I-70 and Sharpsburg Pike!), let’s slow down and pay attention to our surroundings. As I said at the beginning of this sermon, today’s lessons are about people who find themselves in impossible situations.
The Hebrew people are on their way to freedom having survived a hair-raising night when the first-born of Egypt died; even as their children were spared. They can see freedom on the horizon until they come to the murky shores of a large, swampy barrier. The Red or “Reed” Sea puts them in between the on-coming and vengeful chariots of powerful Pharaoh and their path to freedom. (Remember what the weather folks told us about running water? Even a few inches can knock someone off their feet. Which is to say, the crossing was probably not between the dramatic walls of water in the famous Charlton Heston version!) Their faith in Moses leadership and his message of the God who calls them to leave slavery behind is sorely tested. But in the darkness of twilight and all night, the people are led through the waters toward freedom; until the dawn when they look back and find the chariots of the mighty army have been thrown into disarray and clogged in the mud. What first seemed impossible was made possible by the mighty action of God on behalf of enslaved persons. No wonder this story still stand as the anchor of the faith story for the Jews and Christians. It is the one we retell at the Easter Vigil, the one which reminds us of baptism – the impossible journey from the death of sin to new life in Christ.
Paul, in the waning years of his missionary journeys around the Mediterranean, is writing to the church in Rome. He is preparing to travel to Jerusalem and then to Spain, a trip he will never make; as his arrest, final trip to Rome, and execution took place soon after these words were written. But at the time, Paul is continuing to address the challenges presented to him by those who, like us, were trying to live a Christian life – but still found themselves quarreling and in conflict with one another. Church has always been a messy business!! So Paul sets forth to remind everyone that judgement is a risky tool, and that the bonds of the beloved community are based on our shared redemption and our shared Salvation. Grace is the roof over our heads, and justice for the weak are the walls of the Church. Paul repeats this theme again and again in the 14th – 16th chapters of this remarkable letter – And sums it up in Chapter 15:5-6:
“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Jesus’ parable in our Gospel of Matthew is a response to Peter’s question – So, how many times must I forgive? The commonly understood rule of the first century was to forgive three times, then lower the boom on the fourth. Peter, trying to be magnanimous poses a more liberal interpretation – seven times? But Jesus blows him the listeners and us out of the water with the parable of the forgiven debtors and ending with the words: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive our brother or sister from your heart.” An impossible situation! For which one of us, if we are to be brutally honest, has lived up to these words? But please remember the third barrel I mentioned – our tendency to cheapen the grace and forgiveness offered by God through Jesus Christ. The problem of forgiveness is a universal question—and is essentially the same for all people in all times and places. It is uniquely human problem not shared with the natural world which has no choice or no ethic. Hurricanes come and go, as do tornados, fire, and floods; and my dog Sammi always greets me with love when I come home.
The need for forgiveness arises because human relationships are complicated. And when relationships are broken and boundaries are violated, people get hurt. Listen carefully to this next part: we can forgive and ALSO act in ways that prevent evil from flourishing. Forgiveness does not take the place of safety, security, and justice. Notice that the slave who was forgiven by the King misuses that forgiveness to abuse someone else. We sell ourselves and the Grace of God short when we believe that forgiveness means to overlook or forget the wrong that has been done.
So, then, where does that leave us today? I have tried to slow us down and steer us around the barriers to keep us safe from crashing into dangerous places, and I hope maybe I have raised more questions than I have addressed!!!! -- For sometimes that is the job of the preacher – to crack open assumptions and let the light of God’s truth warm our narrow notions.
But I am aware of time – and of the impossibility of being able to sew this sermon shut in a neat row of stiches…..speaking of impossible situations!!! So allow me to close with some words from one of the greatest truth-tellers of our time, our own Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Bishop Tutu, winner of the Nobel Peace prize, is credited with saving South Africa from a terrible racial bloodbath after the ending of the era of Apartheid – the forced separation of whites and blacks – of the ruling colonial class who oppressed the sons and daughters of the homeland. He posed a simple four-part process toward forgiveness:
1. Telling the Story
2. Naming the Hurt
3. Granting Forgiveness
4. Renewing or Releasing the Relationship (Notice, that some relationships must be “released” or ended, when they are harmful to us and others.)
But in order to fully appreciate this process, let’s hear from the Archbishop himself:
There were so many nights when I, as a young boy, had to watch helplessly as my father verbally and physically abused my mother. I can still recall the smell of alcohol, see the fear in my mother's eyes and feel the hopeless despair that comes when we see people we love hurting each other in incomprehensible ways. I would not wish that experience on anyone, especially not a child. If I dwell on those memories, I can feel myself wanting to hurt my father back, in the same ways he hurt my mother, and in ways of which I was incapable as a small boy. I see my mother's face and I see this gentle human being whom I loved so very much and who did nothing to deserve the pain inflicted on her….
When I recall this story, I realize how difficult the process of forgiving truly is. Intellectually, I know my father caused pain because he himself was in pain. Spiritually, I know my faith tells me my father deserves to be forgiven as God forgives us all. But it is still difficult. The traumas we have witnessed or experienced live on in our memories. Even years later they can cause us fresh pain each time we recall them….
A human life is a great mixture of goodness, beauty, cruelty, heartbreak, indifference, love and so much more. All of us share the core qualities of our human nature and so sometimes we are generous and sometimes selfish. Sometimes we are thoughtful and other times thoughtless; sometimes we are kind and sometimes cruel. This is not a belief. This is a fact….
Forgiving is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering--remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened….
In the end what matters is not how good we are but how good God is. Not how much we love Him but how much He loves us. And God loves us whoever we are, whatever we’ve done or failed to do, whatever we believe or can’t….
Dear Child of God, I write these words because we all experience sadness, we all come at times to despair, and we all lose hope that the suffering in our lives and in the world will ever end. I want to share with you my faith and my understanding that this suffering can be transformed and redeemed. There is no such thing as a totally hopeless case. Our God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine. God created order out of disorder, cosmos out of chaos, and God can do so always, can do so now--in our personal lives and in our lives as nations, globally. ... Indeed, God is transforming the world now--through us--because God loves us.”
― Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time
May these words of a great, humble, and holy man; words which echo the Gospel, give us hope and healing in our own time, in our own communities, and in our own lives.
A sermon by the Rev. Anne O. Weatherholt
Rector, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 18313 Lappans Road, Boonsboro, MD. 21713
www.stmarkslappans.org, Sunday, August 20, 2017
Who belongs with us? This is a question which determines the boundaries of a group.
Who is a member of the group or club or family, and who is not. Clubs know who belongs according to who has paid their dues; on Wednesdays, our Church group eats at the Redmen’s – we are signed in by a member. Membership brings privilege – in this case a somewhat less expensive lunch! Veterans groups know their membership –those who have been “members” of various branches of the armed forces. Some groups are less formal – such as groups of friends forged in High School or College – the class of ’73! Sometimes the boundaries that mark the edges of a group are not that noticeable – maybe those who have made a Cursillo, or belong to the Daughters of the King. Some groups keep membership lists. Others are known by shared goals or experiences.
Do you know what makes you a member of St. Mark’s? Baptism makes you a Christian, and baptized persons whose baptism has taken place or been recorded from another location in our record book are members of St. Mark’s. Then there are at least two categories of members that are noted in our Church organizational Canons. Members in good standing are those who work, pray and give regularly. Members not in good standing are all the rest – recorded in the book, but not present in worship or any other activity. Then there are those who consider themselves members by the affiliation of their relatives or by past association. All are part of my responsibility as the priest, and all receive pastoral care as necessary. The shut-ins who cannot attend, cannot give and are in Nursing Homes are just as important as the member who is here every Sunday and tithes a full 10%. For centuries the Anglican/Episcopal tradition has been to view ourselves as a Parish – A geographically constituted area--where each individual soul is in the care of the Rector and the Church.
By itself the questions of “who belongs” is not an improper question. The sense of belonging – of being noticed and nurtured and cared for—is very elemental in healthy emotional landscapes. Children who grow up not feeling that they “belong” somewhere can face significant emotional and psychological challenges. The feeling of being “left out” is hurtful at almost any age.
This issue of “who belongs” is imbedded in our lessons today. And to help us view these lessons, I’m taking a quote from theologian Ruby Sales. (Do you remember who she was? Ruby’s life was saved during a Civil Rights march when Episcopal Seminarian Jonathan Myrick literally “took a bullet” and saved her life.) Ruby says that to be a good theologian we have to have “hindsight, insight and foresight.”
Today I want to begin with “foresight” by looking backward – I know, it’s a paradox – to Isaiah.
In a departure from the centering of the Old Testament stories on the people who are descendants of Abraham, Isaiah moves well beyond the “Chosen people.” The prophet predicts a time when
“… the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant--
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples. [Isaiah 56:1, 6-8]
“A House of Prayer for all peoples.” That is the nickname for the Washington National Cathedral – the Episcopal Cathedral in our Nation’s Capital. This is also the quote Jesus used when chasing the money changers from the temple! The role of the money changers was to change all foreign currency (at a profit) into special temple money – which was the only currently allowed for tithes. Jesus’ point was not so much about spending money inside the temple as it was about the profiteering which was exploitive and exclusive.
Now we look back in hindsight, as does Paul. In today’s passage from the letter to the Christians in Rome, [Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32] he makes a case for the full inclusion of the Gentiles, not just those who were descendants of Abraham. He reminds his listeners that he holds a place of privilege! “I myself am an Israelite, a descendent of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin!” But Paul asserts, no one holds a special or more exclusive place as ALL have fallen short of God’s commandments, and thus ALL are candidates for God’s mercy.
But it is today’s Gospel [Matthew 15: 10-28] that makes the greatest argument for belonging – and we gain the greatest insight; for even Jesus’ sense of who “belongs” was challenged!
Matthew, (the tax collector, who knew well what it was NOT to belong) tells us that one day Jesus was traveling in the district of Tyre and Sidon --- an area to the north west of Galilee – considered by many to be an area that was outside Palestine. This is in a real sense the only time Jesus went into a “foreign” county. This was a region where Phoenicians and people of the old Canaanite stock – those descended from the peoples Joshua found when the Children of Israel returned from Egypt—lived. These were completely foreign people, not descended from Abraham – who did not worship one God. This ethnic group was hostile to the Jews.
It is near the end of Jesus’s ministry in Galilee; and because Jesus could no longer travel around Galilee without crowds following (and the paparazzi pushing to see him!), he may have wanted to get away with the disciples to teach and instruct them. But no such luck. Even in this remote, foreign region Jesus’ reputation as a healer is known, and he is confronted by a Canaanite woman pleading with him to heal her daughter. We can only imagine her distress; she even asks a foreign rabbi for help! She will go to any length, any source for her child. “Have mercy on my, Lord, Son of David.” She has no agenda except her daughter. She probably had few expectations, but hopes Jesus will listen and respond, for Jesus is literally her “last hope.”
But, as Matthew writes: “…he did not answer her at all.” How unnerving! Can you imagine your finger landing on that passage in a random search? Or making that Bible quote into a wall plaque???? It is the disciples who finally plead with Jesus to make her stop!!! Jesus’ reply is even more curious than his silence. Silence may just be a pause; but speech has the power to convey meaning, and must be used, heard and interpreted carefully! Where else in the Gospels does Jesus refuse to engage? His reply may have been terse:
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Talk about not belonging! But the woman refuses to take “no” for an answer And a curious dialog ensues: “She came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.”
A short digression: In most places in the scripture, the word translated for “dog” means
Feral dogs – dogs that eat trash. But here the word is actually “puppies” more like house pets
So she is really saying, “Lord, even the puppies eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus gets it –
“How great is your faith!”
Literally, you have MEGA FAITH!
This Gospel passage is, of course, a lesson in love, in faith and in persistence in prayer. But persistence alone does not always yield the desired results. Her faith was great because she knew she had no “right” to ask anything of a Jewish rabbi, And yet she grasped the greater meaning of Jesus’ calling and purpose – to have mercy on the whole world. What is it we say in our liturgy?
Lord, have mercy.
Jesus, Lamb of God, have mercy on us.
This is a lesson about who belongs --- who is worthy of God’s mercy.
As you can imagine when writing this sermon, I had the events of this past week in my mind –
And maybe you have already been reminded of the great divisions we have seen demonstrated, divisions that go far beyond politics or history; divisions that are created when people decide
Who is worthy of belonging and who is not;
who is worthy of being an American; and who is not;
who is fully a child of God – and who is not.
Thousands of years before Christ, Isaiah began to grasp the universality of God’s love and purpose for the world, and in the first century, Jesus and the disciples found the boundaries of their group and their world stretched almost beyond imagination.
In a time when we are once again reminded of the legacy of racism, in a day when there are battles in the streets over pieces of metal and stone, idolized for their form; in a church built by those who owned other human beings and did not pay them for their labor or recognize their family boundaries; may we once again retell the story of the Canaanite woman; whose story is the same as ours. Even though she was separated from Jesus by race, by gender, by ethnicity; and even though she is separated from us by history and culture, she is the “everywoman” of our faith story, reminding us that the basic prayer of every Christian is
“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
For ALL of us belong to the group of humans who need to be forgiven and saved by the Love of God shown through Jesus Christ. Amen.
God bless the waves that batter our boats
Reminding us that the ocean is God’s world, too.
God bless the sorrow that batters our hearts
Reminding us that the depth of grief measures the depth of love.
God bless the fear that batters our souls
Reminding us that all living souls fear the loss of something precious.
God bless the storms that batter our earth
Reminding us that there is much we cannot control.
God bless the waves which rock our world
Reminding us that faith cannot be summoned by force of will
Reminding us that we can only ask for it,
Waiting as the next wave rises, lifts and bears us up
Propelling us toward Christ: Who commands the waves
Christ: Who is in the boat
Christ: Who is in the depths
Christ: Who is waiting to pull us towards the safe shore of his grace.
When I look into the Cup – A meditation by Cory Eyler
April 2010, Found in his Book of Common Prayer
(Cory passed into God’s larger life on February 23, 2017)
The ministry of Chalicist at the Holy Eucharist is one of the most rewarding and moving experiences I have ever had the distinct pleasure of performing. Each time, as I look into the cup, in my mind I see our Lord washing the feet of the Disciples and then performing the first Eucharist in the Upper Room. Other times, I see Jesus in His victory over death, risen form the tomb and ascending to the Father. I am careful not to be conspicuous or to draw anyone’s attention away from communing with the Holy Spirit. However, I do confess that from time to time a communicant will initiate eye contact for reasons known only to them. I keep my countenance both friendly and kindly, if you will. Holy Communion is, well, Holy. And as such, one must be vigilant that none be spilled or wasted.
The handling of the communion chalice can be a bit tricky if you are not careful. I hold the chalice in my right hand, and the purificator in my left. Most supplicants take the wine directly from the cup, others will intinct the wafer into the wine. Some, like myself, prefer the chalicist intinct the bread and place it on the communicant’s tongue. It reminds me of the passage from the Gospel of John, wherein Jesus says: “feed my sheep.” I am feeding His sheep as He instructed. At times, it is challenging. I believe that some fear it is forbidden to touch the base of the chalice in order to tip the cup up to receive the sacrament. When that happens I am tasked with ensuring that the cup is tilted enough for them to receive without giving them an unscheduled bath of wine!
In my former home parish, we enjoyed a free-standing altar. This allowed easy movement during the Eucharist. As the priest was moving left to right along the communion rail, I could go around behind the altar to serve those waiting. Now at St. Mark’s, Lappans, we have a fixed altar on the back wall. The distance from communion rail to the altar is a scant four feet. That calls for some fancy footwork as it is a very limited space to work in. It did not take long for those of us who serve to learn the choreography required in order to avoid collision.
Although communion is serious business, it is also a happy time for most. Of course Jesus is with us every minute of every day, but when one thinks of the gift of everlasting life as a result of His sacrifice and by God’s grace, one cannot help but be moved to great joy.
There are other ministries that I have done and still do perform. For example, the reading of the Word of God, a very satisfying ministry in itself. But it would be difficult to say that one is more important than the other. Both give me great satisfaction, in different ways. The bottom line for me is that as long as I am in His service and it is what God desires of me, I am and always will be His humble servant, no matter where He leads.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound….
Cory Eyler, April 2010
Now the Lord said to Abram,
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house
To the Land that I will show you.” Genesis 12:1
WHERE am I going?
Actually, the Bible continues, “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him….”
I would have had a LOT of questions – and maybe I wouldn’t have gone at all!
The story of Abram sets off a whole new section of the Book of Genesis.
Prior to Abram, we have the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel and Noah.
But in Chapter 12, there is a shift –
While before the accounts were stories meant to point to ideas of why the world is the way it is – broken, sinful, divided, yet, oddly redeemed--
Here for the first time, we have an historic figure –
One who becomes the father of many nations, and the shared ancestor of the three great Abrahamic faiths:
Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
For the first time, we have a figure who can be placed in historic context;
And events that unfold in his life can be replicated by archeologic evidence and sources outside the Bible.
The mark of this shift in Biblical narrative is the pronouncement from God to Abram (not yet Abraham – that comes later);
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house
To the Land that I will show you.” Genesis 12:1
Today’s theme of Great Questions of the Faith is “Where?”
And what is interesting about this passage is that
Abram had to leave before he could be led.
There is no account of Abram asking God,
“Where am I going? Where is this Promised Land?”
Abram, just picked up and left –
Much like the disciples left their nets to follow Jesus.
We are much more likely to ask “Where am I going?”
Where are you leading, me God?
Or, God, where are you when I need you?
During the season of Lent, we are called, like Abram, to go on a journey –
But, like Abram, we have to leave before we can be led
Which is, admittedly, difficult.
This can be frightening, but it can also become a great adventure:
I am reminded of a trip I took with my family to Europe when I was 12.
We had planned very carefully –
We had maps, guide books, and the European Travelers Companion of 1967 – “Europe on $5 a day.”
Yet, as each day unfolded, we had no idea where we would stop our VW camper bus for lunch;
And we only had a vague idea of where we might be camping that night.
Life became an adventure each day.
Conditions were not always great – sometimes it rained;
And one night there was a storm that threatened to blow down our tent;
And by the end of the summer – 12 weeks in all – I was homesick.
But it was a trip that forever changed the way I see the world
And others who live in it with me.
And it taught me that I had to leave before I could be led;
And that “where?” Was a question that could not always be answered right away;
That “Where” might just be the place we paused before starting again.
Nicodemus learned this when he carried on a conversation with Jesus – recorded in our Gospel from John today.
Like Abram, Nicodemus learned that he had to leave before he could be led –
That many of the assumptions he had about Messiah, about the Kingdom of God, about his expectations of what eternal life was like had to be left behind;
And that as God led him to a new “where” – it was so radical, it was like being born for a second time;
Learning everything over again:
How to talk and walk, how to learn, what life is like.
Nicodemus learned that we are born every day we wake up;
We are born when we repent of harm we do to others;
We are born when we die in grief for something or someone we have lost;
We are born when we rejoice in finding something new;
We are born when we offer forgiveness and receive it.
We are born when we find courage to speak up and stand up against harm and wrong, especially on behalf of others who cannot speak for themselves out of fear, ignorance, or intimidation.
So often when we read this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, we get too caught up in the “Little Gospel” John 3:16 and the words about Jesus: “believe in him.”
If these words seem to imply that no doubt is allowed – then we cannot leave in order to be led.
The idea behind this passage about belief is much more like connecting onto a long train of truth – moving through the saving history of God;
A train that links us with the Apostolic Faith from the Resurrection and Pentecost; and even before from Abram and Sarai
Throughout all ages, all cultures, all peoples.
We may not know where the train will take us –
But Jesus invites us to hop on --
To leave in order to be led.
Sometimes I have wondered, why did God choose Abram and Sarai?
Why didn’t God choose a family from Asia or Africa or South America?
I once read an account from a Jewish folk tale that
Reasoned: From the time the first parents had to leave the garden of perfection, God began asking people to help.
God asked many people who said, “no.”
Abram was the first one who said, “yes.”
Abram left so that he could be led to the “Where” of God’s promise.
And in the process, Abram and Sarai became the spiritual ancestors of millions of faithful people.
So when you ask God “Where?”
Where are you, God when I need you?
Where am I going, God?
Remember Abram – who had to leave before he could be led.
This is not optional – it is required for spiritual growth.
Just as the disciplines of Lent are not optional – but required if we are to be better prepared for the Easter Feast!
Remember that leaving does not always mean relocating yourself physically,
But may mean leaving behind old habits, old thoughts old resentments.
It may mean leaving a place where you have been comfortable, but blind and deaf to the call to serve in the name of Christ.
It may mean leaving in order to be led to a place where you are uncomfortable, but open to seeing the face of God in others you once considered strangers.
Abram had to leave before he could be led.
And we too, during this Lent must leave before we can be led to the new “where” God has in store for us.
Sermon for Lent 1, March 5, 2017
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Lappans
By The Rev. Anne O. Weatherholt, Rector
We have now entered the season of Lent.
For the next six weeks, we are in preparation for the Easter Feast.
As promised, I am beginning a series of sermons titled “Great Questions of Faith,”
And todays question is “Why?”
First some parameters and a disclaimer.
If you are expecting answers that will forever address these questions for everyone, everywhere in all times and places;
You will be disappointed.
If you are expecting quick and simple sermons that resolve your personal questions, you will be disappointed.
I realize this is NOT a great way to begin a sermon series!
But - -if you are willing to go on a journey with me;
If you are willing to think and question doubt and struggle;
Then just maybe, all of us will have a chance to grow in faith;
And as we grow in faith, to grow in practice, making us more Christ-like
Making us a Church, a place of community, of learning and of compassion.
So, with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s dive in!
Today’s question “Why?” is perhaps one of the most universally human questions of all.
For thousands of years, human beings have asked “Why?” in good times and in bad.
We know little children are reaching a wonderful stage of growth when they begin to ask “why?”
Mommy, why is the grass green and the sky blue?
Daddy, why do I have to brush my teeth and eat my green beans?
And the more challenging questions:
Why did my goldfish die?
Why did the bee sting my foot?
And for those children in the Church,
Why can’t God stop wars?
Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?
As we grow older, the whys grow in depth and breadth,
Even as the answers begin to form… but the whys seem to follow a similar pattern:
Why is the grass green? – Photosynthesis!
Why is the sky blue? – Refraction of light waves
Why do I have to brush my teeth? So your mouth will stay healthy
Why do I have to eat my green beans? So that your body will gain nutrients.
Why did my goldfish die? We forgot to change the water.
Why did the bee sting my foot? I stepped on it – and it was defending itself.
But as we get into the more complicated issues, it is tempting to give simple answers to complex questions:
Why can’t God stop wars? -- Because bad people keep starting them….????
Why doesn’t God answer my prayers? Because …..well…ummm….God always answers prayers but just not always in the ways we expect?????
Why? Why? Why??
This question has inspired humanity to gain some of the greatest knowledge of the universe.
And this question has been the cry of those in despair who feel God has forsaken them.
But to ask this question is to begin a conversation with God;
Who, after all, was there before anything existed;
And in whom we live and move and have our being…..
And, as it says in one of our prayers….”from whom no secrets are hid!”
In our scripture, our forbearers began their own conversation with God
As they looked around and wondered, “Why are things the way they are?”
“Why do babies die? Why can’t we seem to keep God’s laws?
Why does civilization always seem to drift towards corruption?
And as they continued this conversation with God and with one another,
A story began to emerge:
A story about the beginning of all things
A story that begins in “Pre-history”
Not so much intent on fact or recollection; But on meaning and context –
The story that is our Old Testament Lesson today
The story of Adam and Eve – the representatives of the first humans, our first parents.
Why does bad stuff happen? Wondered our first scripture writers.
Why, even when God has delivered our people from slavery and given us the Promised Land,
Why do we still seem to have wars with our enemies and civil wars between our sisters and brothers?
We believe God is the ultimate ground of all being;
And we believe God has made us His people;
And we believe that God is good and loving, and holy and all powerful;
Why do bad things happen?
Today’s story from Genesis was their conversation with God;
There must have been a time, they prayed, that things were good
Between us and God –
Else why would we even care r know that things were bad?
And if there WAS a time when things were good, what happened?
So came into being the story of Adam – Atham – which means human being
And Eve –
But notice that in this account from Genesis, they are not named---
They are referred to as “the man” and “the woman.”
God has set them in a wonderful garden with all that they need.
But God has also set some boundaries –
That they should be HUMAN –
They are not to be “little Gods”
They are not to have complete autonomy;
But are to be in good relationship with God and one another.
But then, as the story goes;
Temptation enters the picture –
That force which points away from God
That tendency we all have to see our own way as the best way.
And with temptation, the man and woman “fall,” from favor with God.
They eat of the fruit (notice not “apple”—that came along with medieval painters);
And their eyes are opened.
They become ashamed of themselves –
And they sew some fig leaves together to cover themselves up.
The story goes on— beyond the selection for today:
God comes to the garden in the cool of the day to visit the humans;
But finds them hiding.
Who told you you were naked? Who made you ashamed to be what I created you to be?
And the humans begin to blame – he said, she said, the serpent made me do it…..
And God cannot allow them to stay in the place of perfection.
They no longer belong;
But they are sent out into the world with their new knowledge of Good and evil – the knowledge of Good that reminds them of their original and intended relationship with God;
And the knowledge of evil – that this relationship has been broken – and not by God!
Here is where the conversation begins to address the question “Why?”
Why? Because the creation and reality in which we exist is broken.
Because we are no longer in “Eden” – even if we somehow suspect deep in our hearts that there was once a place and time and will again be a place and time where wars will cease and little children will not starve.
Because in each of us is born the tendency to believe the world is as we individually see it – we cannot crawl into another persons’ reality –
And this tendency can either make us selfish;
Or, if realized, it can make us humble.
Why not? Because the relationship with God is flawed, we are subject to all manner of things – random acts such as floods and earthquakes;
And avoidable acts, such as – well you name it!
And actions others perpetuate that impact us;
And actions we do that harm or hurt others….
No child has to be taught to be bad or selfish ---
One of the most chilling books I ever read was “The Lord of the Flies”
It is about a band of boys marooned on a desert island. At first they help each other, but as time goes on and resources are scarce, the stronger ones prey upon the weaker boys. In the end, just before they are rescued, a young child becomes a gruesome sacrifice – and even though in the end they are all just children, none of them are innocent.
The book was written in post war 1955 – and is a commentary on the inhumanity that seems to erupt when moral boundaries are absent.
Each person must somewhere/somehow learn to be good, to repent and begin again; to be forgiven and to become empathetic, compassionate and altruistic.
One more point before ending this sermon:
The conversation with God can be shortchanged if our answers to this huge human question are made in a way that does not wait and listen such as:
Why? Because it is God’s will……
Why? Because there is a reason for everything…
Why? Because humanity is evil….
Why? Because that is just the way things are…………
These replies stop the conversation with God and shortchange us – they may seem to help in the short run, but stunt our spiritual growth in the long run.
It is much more difficult to wait and listen:
To open our hearts and minds to the boundless faithfulness of God;
To be willing to realize that we still have much to learn;
And to often take the next step into the unknown, grasping the hand of our Lord who went through death so that our why’s might be heard in the light of His forgiving love.
Stay tuned for next week’s question: Where?
Q: Excuse me, but is that dirt on your forehead?
A: Today is Ash Wednesday, the day many Christian churches observe as the beginning of the season called Lent. The ashes are made from the burning of Palms from last Palm Sunday. Clergy all over the world mark the sign of the cross on the foreheads of worshippers with the words: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Q: Well, that’s cheerful. Why would anyone want to start a religious season with a downer?
A: It isn’t intended to be a downer, but a reminder that our mortal lives will end one day and that each day is a gift to be lived with intention and care. The phrase about dust comes from Genesis 3:19 where God reminds Adam and Eve—who represent the first humans—that they will not live forever, and that suffering comes as a result of separation from God’s love and intention for the world. We live in a broken creation where everything is in decay. But still God’s love is present, urging us to acts of kindness and sustaining us through times of sorrow and confusion. God’s intentions for the whole creation are slowly rising up, much like the spring flowers push through the dirt. By putting ashes on our foreheads, we affirm our unity with creation—dirt—from which new life comes, literally all that sustains life on this earth.
Q: How did this practice begin? I don’t remember anything about it in the Bible.
A: That is true. There is no mention of Ash Wednesday in the Bible, just as there is no mention of Christmas or Easter; but people in Biblical history used ashes as a sign of mourning when someone died, or as a sign of repentance and sorrow. When Jacob heard that his son, Joseph had supposedly died, he threw ashes on his head. (It turned out later that Joseph’s brothers had sold him into slavery.) By the 8th century, there is mention in writings of Christian monks about placing ashes on one’s head to signify repentance during Lent. The practice was rejected by Martin Luther during the Reformation, but was retained by the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches. In recent times, other Christians have adopted the practice to help mark a time of preparation for Easter, a time to evaluate our lives, to make amends, to confess that we are sorry for the ways we hurt others, and to ask God to give us wisdom to live in ways that are life-giving for ourselves and others.
Q: So what is this season of Lent? Do all Christians observe it?
A: Lent is a season that begins 46 days before Easter. The word “Lent” literally means to lengthen—as the days in the northern hemisphere are getting longer. During the 40 days of Lent (excluding Sundays which are always feast days), Christians are encouraged to take time for a personal inventory, and through practices such as fasting or prayer, to renew and strengthen their spiritual life. The forty days remind us of the 40 days that Noah was in the Ark, sustained on the waters of life; the forty years the Hebrew people wandered in the wilderness; and the 40 days Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. All of these events remind us that in life we will face times of testing, doubt, and challenge. A renewal of spiritual practices helps Christians return to the “basics,” and clean out any resentments or inner turmoil that separate us from the love of God. Lent is most often observed by the Churches which trace their roots directly to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox faith, such as Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Methodists, which are often called “liturgical” churches, keeping a yearly calendar of feasts, fasts and Biblical readings. But don’t forget, Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” or Shrove Tuesday which comes just before Lent--a party time, a “last hurrah and Alleluia” before the somber and more reflective season of Lent. On Easter, the Alleluias are restored in music, readings, and worship.
Q: When do you remove the ashes?
A: No one is required to keep the ashes on his or her face after the ritual. Many Christians choose to leave the ashes visible as a witness to their faith, and, as others ask, there is an opportunity to share their belief.
Q: I’m not an Episcopalian and haven’t been to church much. Can I come to receive Ashes on Ash Wednesday?
A: Of course! Our church has an “open door” policy. We expect seekers, doubters and those who are “shopping” for a church that is authentic, genuine, and has a balance between the traditions of the past and the needs of the present. You might find that our Church is not what you expect and everything you hope for. Ash Wednesday is a wonderful way to begin a journey of faith, to explore and take a step toward wholeness and peace in your life. Some churches even take the Ashes to the streets! You might find “Ashes to go” at the train station, downtown Baltimore, or on the sidewalk in front of a church. But no matter where they are offered, know that the invitation is open to all. Come and see what you have been missing!
One of the great longings of our hearts is to be connected with God and with each other. We are separated by many things—by the busyness of our lives, by distractions that pull us in many directions, by our inattention to virtues and thoughts that point us toward God. This Christmas, make a commitment to be connected to God and the ones you love. Come to Church. Worship with your sisters and brothers in Christ. Say “I love you,” to your family members. Pray. Open your Bible and read from the Psalms and Gospels. Reconnect your spirit with the Holy Spirit of God.
In a time when the world seems to rush on quickly, take time to reflect. If you have lost a loved one, you may find your thoughts and feelings near the surface in this season. Remembering them and recalling the blessings God has given you will enrich your life. Christ’s love is reflected by us as we practice being patient and kind. Picture a lovely calm lake; trees and sky reflected in the surface. Ask God to give you a calm and peaceful spirit reflecting the true meaning of this Holy Season.
Are you looking forward or backward? Do your thoughts pull you back toward old hurts, old memories, old habits? Advent is a time of expectation. When we set our sights on the coming of the Lord, we see the world through the eyes of Christ. Our expectations become shaped by the prophetic promises of justice, of mercy, of a future that is greater and better than we can ask or imagine.
Connect, Reflect, Expect
These three actions can change your life, put you in touch with God, and make this Christmastide exceptional. St. Mark’s is here to help. With your generous gifts, we are able to sustain over 225 worship services a year. Our buildings are open seven days a week to serve our members and our community. We provide food for five (5) hungry children a week, and gift boxes of food for their families at holiday time. We are there for you—in sickness and in health, to comfort and console, to congratulate and celebrate.
Our St. Mark’s Vestry and Officers and our St. Mark’s Staff—Daniel Weatherholt, Cindy Nelson, Trudie Holder, and the ever-present Andy McGinley; and my wonderful family—Rev. Allan+, Daniel and his fiancée Elizabeth Sipos+, & Stephen and Jaclyn--join me in wishing you a most blessed Christmastide and New Year celebration.
Peace and Christ’s Blessings, The Rev. Anne O. Weatherholt, Rector
What is the Sabbath? There are a lot of misconceptions about the meaning but let’s begin with the word itself – what does “Sabbath” mean? It means “to cease” or “to rest.” When was the first mention of the Sabbath in the Bible and why?
In the book of Genesis, God rested on the seventh day after making the whole creation – and we call it the “creation” to honor God’s work.
2 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
But listen to the version from another translation:
2 So now you see how the Creator swept into being the spangled heavens, the earth, and all their hosts in six days. 2 On the seventh day—with the canvas of the cosmos completed—God paused from His labor and rested. 3 Thus God blessed day seven and made it special—an open time for pause and restoration, a sacred zone of Sabbath-keeping, because God rested from all the work He had done in creation that day.
Remember that the narrative of the primeval history in Genesis is attributed to Moses and is the opening story of the Torah – or the Pentateuch – the five books of Moses. Thus we meet the Sabbath again in the book of Exodus where it becomes not only one of the 10 commandments, but also a lynch-pin in the distinctive cultural nature of the people, once slaves, who became the Hebrews – eventually the Israelites. These were the only people in that part of the world – indeed in most of what we know sociologically about ancient civilizations who took a “day off” from work.
The book of Leviticus dramatically unfolds this practice of Sabbath-keeping from sundown on the day we call Friday to sundown on the day we call Saturday. The Sabbath would be a day of rest for everyone --- all people including slaves--and animals, and it extended to the seasons and years. Every seventh year was a Sabbath for the land.
In Leviticus Chapter 25, it was decreed that every 7th week of seven years= 49 years, would culminate in a Jubilee year when debts were forgiven, land that had been sold for debts was redeemed, there was no pruning or sowing, just eating what the land produced naturally; and most notably, persons who had been sold for debts could be redeemed and returned to freedom. Thus the “year of Jubilee” had great meaning for those whose lives and livelihood had been stolen and sold. The slaves of the 19th century saw emancipation as a year of Jubilee in a fully spiritual context. The action of President Lincoln was a holy action not just a political one.
Sabbath keeping was put into poetry by the prophets, like Isaiah, which we heard this morning:
Listen again from another translation:
If because of the Sabbath you set aside your own pursuits and pleasure,
and you honor the Sabbath and sanctify that day by leaving it to and for the Eternal--
If you speak of Sabbath-delight but avoid speaking idle words,
and refuse to get caught up and busy with your interests and concerns--
14 Then you will discover joy such as only the Eternal can give.
And I will raise you high and make your reach as wide as the earth,
And you will live on all that I promised to Jacob,
your ancestor, the heart of Israel.
The Eternal One said these very things.
Keeping the Sabbath was one of the ways the Hebrews distinguished themselves from other nations; and it was “enforced” by the religious authorities in a variety of ways. The Sabbath laws had to be interpreted to cover a whole host of actions and practices as time continued. Even today, in Jewish hospitals, there are special elevators that only go one floor at a time – pausing to rest between floors – used only on the Sabbath to keep the law against traveling a certain distance without resting.
Sabbath keeping in its true form has a kind of majesty. There is great emphasis on gathering as a family,
prayers, keeping close to home, gentle actions, long meals, fellowship, a time to reflect, NOT catch up!
It is said that the crock pot was invented by a Jewish woman so that meals could be cooked ahead and then kept warm for consumption on the Sabbath – even women got to rest!!! The practice of Sabbath is still part of the natural rhythm of Israel/Palestine; even as it was in the first Century, in the days when Jesus walked the face of the earth.
Let’s not be too hasty on criticizing the leader of the synagogue in today’s Gospel!
The account is full of detail…things Luke, who was a physician, would be inclined to report from someone who was there – probably Peter. Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. And a woman, bent over, crippled perhaps with arthritis? appears. Jesus calls her forward and sets her “free.” Notice – she did not ask to be cured, but she knew who to thank as she praised God. The leader of the synagogue was indignant—loosing of ties meant “work” which was forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus takes the discussion to a deep level: It is God’s “work.”
The loosing of animals was permitted on the Sabbath so they could eat and drink. And was not a person just as important as the livestock?
But the bigger question is underneath: What makes time holy? We know about places that are holy, people that are holy – saints; even actions that we call holy – like Baptism and Eucharist and the sacraments.
But what makes TIME holy? Sabbath is considered holy – God’s time. When Jesus healed the woman, he was observing holy time – fFor back pain is unrelenting – no time to rest for 18 years! And she was healed on the day of resting – the Sabbath is the day of peace.
But to bring this into today – how did we get Sunday? Why don’t we join our Jewish brothers and sisters and those from the Seventh Day Adventist Church in keeping Saturday as our Sabbath? It has to do with Easter – Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week! The beginning of the new creation in Jesus. The Holy Spirit also came on the first day of the week; and as recorded in the book of Acts, the Christ followers began celebrating the Eucharist on the first day of the week – which in the Julian calendar became known as “Sunday.” (BTW the word Sunday comes from ancient Greek tradition of assigning each day to one of the celestial orbs – thus “Sun – Day.” There is no Christian meaning to this – but in Russian, the word for Sunday means resurrection.) In the early times of American’s settlement, our Puritan forbears brought and broadened the concept of Sabbath keeping into our civic customs – which is why we have a weekend – and why we had “blue laws” designed to prevent commercial enterprise on Sundays. Even now, some businesses still are closed by local ordinance on all or part of Sundays.
But we cannot return to those times. Thus, for us, the ancient concept of Sabbath-keeping that Jesus demonstrated may be even more helpful. Think about TIME: How in today’s world it is governed by clocks, hours, minutes, and seconds – even hundredths of a second like the place between first and second in a race at the Olympics. But time “gets away from us.” Time management tools are popular to help control time. But Time also crawls when we a bored, upset or afraid. Time can race when we are having fun or engrossed in a pastime we enjoy. But time stagnates for patients in the hospital, for elders in Nursing Homes, for those who are lonely, unemployed, in prison.
Holy time—Sabbath- is not just about where we are --- like being in church; but it is about WHO we are –
It is time when we are attentive, we really listen, when we stop and invite God’s loving presence into our hearts and souls and lives and actions. I keep MY Sabbath on Monday – and during the week when I pray and meditate. Today may be YOUR Sabbath – are you resting in God’s love? Are you attentive to those around you? Are you opening up to what God may be doing in your life? Sabbath may come later in life when our bodies slow down and rest becomes essential.
Sabbath keeping is about healing – body, mind, soul. Luke the Gospel writer knew this. Jesus taught this and showed us the true nature of Sabbath; and today we keep Sabbath by celebrating the resurrection, when Jesus rose from the dead and the great power of God’s love was unleashed.
So….now that you know…. How are you going to keep Sabbath?
Anne+ is the Rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Lappans. She says,