Can You Do This?

Proper 24B; October 18, 2015
Mark 10:35-45
Trinity by the Cove Episcopal Church
Naples, Florida

 

When you listen to this Gospel story and you put yourself into the story – who do you identify with? The Zebedee brothers who are coming to Jesus to ask for a special favor, to seal the deal for their future fame and fortune? Or maybe your first gut reaction is with the other disciples – angry that James and John would dare to be so presumptuous – and resentful of their attempt to pull this off at the relative expense of everyone else. And perhaps, if truth be told, they’re a bit jealous that they didn’t move quicker to get their own piece of the pie?

When I’m honest with myself, I must admit to a recurring desire to be special, to be successful. I want to do something that someone will notice . . . something that will make a difference . . . something admirable – that might even make the headlines somewhere. So I think I need to pay attention to Jesus’ response to the request of James and John – made as they are traveling the road to Jerusalem – on the way to the cross.

Jesus is walking along out ahead of the twelve. James and John catch up with him to ask a favor. But they start out by trying to manipulate Jesus – trying to get him to say YES before they tell him what they want – they’re looking for that spiritual blank check. Probably not the best way to go about it, but oh so human, especially when there’s something “not quite right” about the whole proceeding to begin with.

Then comes the request: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

And Jesus replies, “To sit at my right or left is not mine to grant. . .” But, more to the point: “You don’t know what you’re asking.   Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” At this point, James and John are in a hurry to try secure their future success. “Sure we can do that . . .”

The deeper truth of their ambitions goes straight over their heads.   The daunting implications here are these: that in order to live they will have to drink the cup of pain and suffering until it becomes for them the cup of salvation . . . and they will have to drown in deep waters before they rise to new life with Jesus.

So what about us – you and me? How deeply do we understand and consider the daunting implications of those vows we make and affirm in our Baptismal Covenant?  How well do we persevere in resisting evil? Strive for justice and peace? “Sure, we can do that . . . No problem.” ???

In the gospel story, the presumption, the naïveté – the great faux pas – of the Zebedee brothers sets the stage for one of Jesus’ greatest teachings:   Jesus says to his disciples . . . (and he says to us, as well): “The great among you must be a servant of all.”

Jesus’ disciples struggled with this message . . . How well do we “get it” – or do we prefer not to get it . . . How well do we live it?

In our day, as in the day of the twelve, what counts in the culture around us is being up in front . . . being applauded . . . recognized . . . cheered . . . head of the class . . . beating out all our competitors . . . We live in a culture where success is achievement – and failure is unacceptable. Our culture teaches us the importance of being effective . . . making it . . . being number one. . .

And we’re willing to work hard for that prize. We’re willing to give up so much – even sacrificing more than we really have to give . . . So what about the price? – the price of stress . . . or the damage to relationships … or self-compromising our integrity..

The Gospel of Jesus is not a gospel of success and prosperity. Jesus never says, “Be effective; succeed at all costs.” Instead he says, “Live for each other; live with me.” Like Jesus, we too will suffer . . . but in that suffering, we will find life. We will meet ourselves as we already are: created in God’s image.

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Back to our baptismal promises:  “Continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” OK, but what do they really have to do with anything that matters?

The gospel teaching continues. . . Jesus says: “I have come to serve. I am with you. Do as I do. This is Jesus’ word – his instruction about how we are to live as baptized, reborn people: we’re called to be signs of God’s presence and action in the world, we’re called to proclaim God’s kingdom , we’re called to be advocates of those who are denied God’s benefits and blessings.

Jesus’ word here can be hard to comprehend and even more difficult to live into faithfully. We need to look for ways to sustain that lingering experience of baptism – we need to look for ways to enhance our on-going Christian formation . . . (And to this end, be sure to check into Trinity-by-the- Cove’s new formation group “Spreading the Good News” – set to begin in a few weeks!)

With our baptism, we learn the truth about ourselves and how God wants us to live. We spend the rest of our lives living into this truth.  And we make Eucharist; we give thanks for God’s care for us: for grace that frees us from our addiction to success in purely worldly endeavors, for the grace that washes us clean in Jesus’ precious blood . . . for grace that sets us free.  Over and over again at the Eucharistic table, we are renewed as Christ’s body, and sent back into the world – with a fresh vision of God’s intention for us and renewed vigor to live into God’s vision.

So . . . “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons? . . .

Absolutely!   . . .     With God’s help!

 

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Why not ask?

jesus-and-childProper 20B; September 20, 2015
Mark 9:30-37
Trinity by the Cove Episcopal Church, Naples, FL

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It’s really very human I think . . .

  • that often times when we don’t understand something, we don’t ask about it – we don’t question . . .
  • that in moments when we realize that we have no idea what’s just been said or what’s going on – we are unwilling to ask for clarification or further explanation . . .

Why don’t we ask? What are we afraid of?

When we don’t comprehend something, we can tend to figure out all kinds of ways to deflect our discomfort at not knowing.  We avoid asking questions so we won’t appear to be stupid. We don’t want to expose our lack of knowledge, and so we say nothing at all. Or if we disagree, maybe we dread a possible confrontation – so we bite our tongue and keep still.

Another thing is, when you start asking questions, you may get answers that you don’t want to hear – or you’re not yet ready to hear.

When you start asking questions, you’re engaging in dialogue – and dialogue can be a rather unpredictable experience. It’s easier to remain silent. Your own self-contained monologue feels like a much safer place to be.

Not knowing – not understanding. This can be a vulnerable place. I think that may be where the disciples are in the Gospel story today –

“Jesus and his disciples passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ “

But they don’t understand what he’s saying . . . they don’t get it . . .

So why don’t they simply ask Jesus to explain? Probably because they don’t want to appear as confused as they are. They’re embarrassed. Or maybe, they are so distressed by his teaching about the future that they fear addressing it.

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Most of us have been there – in a place where we simply can’t accept what is right in front of us. But take note: This isn’t stupidity. This isn’t obstinacy. It isn’t even a rigid unwillingness to face the facts . . . This is fear. (Mark writes that “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”)

Why such fear? Perhaps because they can’t imagine how what Jesus is saying can possibly be true. Jesus has spent his time teaching – and healing – and feeding – and driving out demons … So how can Jesus possibly suffer the way he describes it? How can someone this good be killed?

But there’s more to it than that: Jesus doesn’t just predict that he will suffer – he says he will be betrayed. And you can only be betrayed by someone you trust. So the disciples may be wondering how this implicates them, Jesus’ closet friends, in the dark events to come . . .

This whole picture is simply too terrible to face. The disciples don’t understand and – most probably, don’t want to understand . . . not out of stubbornness, but out of fear.  And I wonder if they even heard the last part, “and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”

Fear does this:  Fear limits our options . . . blinds our vision for the future . . . strangles our imagination . . . destroys possibility.  Fear kills all hope.

And this is why Jesus came: to take on fear – his own fear, as well as ours. Jesus overcame fear by enduring fear – the fear of death – and by accepting death itself on the cross. But he was raised from death according to God’s promise. It’s this promise that allows Jesus to overcome fear.

Jesus overcomes fear in the only way possible: by trusting the love and mercy of God. The only way through fear is by love and trust in God . . . and by the grace of God.  Through death on the cross, Jesus opens the way to God’s grace . . . and he gives us the ability to love and trust as well.

——————–

So back to today’s reading:

We can see why the disciples have problems understanding, and we can even sympathize with the things that make them reluctant to ask questions. But I wonder what might have happened if they had found the courage to ask their questions? . . . I wonder if they would have discovered that there is nothing Jesus’ wants more than to share their questions, their struggles, and their doubts so that he can help them come closer to God. And I wonder if the same is true for us.

When we have questions about our faith – when doubts arise – then shouldn’t we ask questions? If Jesus’ death seems meaningless to us or if his resurrection is hard to accept and believe, shouldn’t we ask questions?

We all have questions:

  • Where is God when I’m hurting?
  • Why do bad things happen to good people?
  • Why do we have cancer . . . and terrorism . . . and poverty?

Wouldn’t it be good if we dared to ask these questions – – – in spite of our fears?

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Of course, the first place to take our questions is to God – to come to God in prayer, honestly claiming our doubts and fears.

If that’s difficult, try praying the Psalms: The psalms are brutally honest, and they contain the whole range of human experience and emotion. The Psalms can give us an entrance into prayer when our own words fail us.

Sometimes we need the help of others to pray with us. If you are seeking answers – and the healing grace that flows from Jesus and from the power of the Cross, the OSL healing prayer ministry team will be waiting to pray with you after the service today.

Also, today is the beginning of the Christian formation programs at Trinity for the fall season. This is another place to bring your questions and grow in the knowledge of love of Christ.

And please – always feel free to speak with any of the clergy – Fr. Edward, Fr. Daniel, Fr. Steve or me – if you’d like to talk with us about your questions . . .

So think about it: What questions are you afraid to ask God? or What questions do you wish you could ask at church?

Jesus welcomes us even when we don’t have all the answers. Today’s Gospel reading closes with Jesus embracing a child who is the ultimate symbol of not knowing – a child who is immature and totally dependent – yet, at the same time, is uninhibited, delightfully curious and spiritually full of purity and life . . .

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The good news is that we need not fear our questions, our confusion, our curiosity . . . because, in truth, we live through Jesus Christ – whose “perfect love casts out all fear.”

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Where Else Can We Go?

David Psalm

Proper 12B; August 23, 2015
Psalm 34:15-22; John 6:56-69
Trinity by the Cove Episcopal Church, Naples, FL

 

 

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted
            and will save those whose spirits are crushed.

These are the words of verse 18 of today’s Psalm. For me they are some of the most reassuring, comforting words that I’ve come across for those devastating times in my life when my heart was broken, my spirit crushed – in lonely, tough times . . .

In pastoral ministry many of the people who come my way find themselves living this 18th verse of the thirty-fourth psalm. Oftentimes when someone comes in to see me – or when I go out to meet them in their homes or in the hospital — they are in a rough place. Of course, I’ve also had lots of chances to rejoice and give thanks with you all during the two and a half months I’ve been with you . But all of us, without exception, at some point in time find ourselves feeling very alone and broken-hearted – with spirits that are seemingly crushed. So how do we go about experiencing God, how do we look for God . . . cry out for God — in these lonely, tough times?

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We don’t preach about the psalms very often – I think that’s too bad because the psalms are the only collection of prayers in the Bible. And in those prayers are honest cries that come from our deepest humanity: there’s thanksgiving and joy, but there’s also fear and doubt and anger – and even despair. The psalms resonate with most every human emotion and experience – and they give us a sounding board . . . sometimes when we have no words of our own.

It seems right in this world – it seems a matter of justice – that the good people should be rewarded and the wicked suffer. In the book of Proverbs we actually read that: “Misfortune pursues sinners, but prosperity rewards the righteous.”

But we know that’s not exactly true! For instance, I look around – you all look like good people to me! It’s Sunday, you’re dressed up and you’re in church . . . We all are good people, right? Maybe not perfect, but generally speaking good.

But each of us finds ourselves in times when we suffer misfortune. And this points to the huge “Why question” – Why do bad things happen to good people? Where is God when bad things happen to us? The theological term for this is theodicy: “If God is good and just and all powerful, why is there evil and suffering in the world?” Brilliant scholars and theologians have wrestled with this question, probably since the beginning of time, and to no really satisfactory end. So I’m not going to try to explain or answer that question. More to the point is this: How do we cope in difficult times? Where do we go for help? And how do we experience God in those times of suffering? . . .

Faith and prayer have a profound role in all of this. We may find our faith profoundly challenged in the times and circumstances that leave us broken, our spirits crushed – when we seem to stagger around helplessly in confusion. We may find it difficult if not impossible to pray.

So do we turn to God – or do we turn away?

 

Abraham Lincoln who knew more than his share of difficult times, has been quoted . . .

“There were many times when I was driven to my knees because I was overwhelmed by the conviction that I had no place else to go.”

This is pretty much the same conclusion that Peter has come to in the Gospel reading today . . .

This sixth chapter in John’s Gospel is pivotal. The chapter began with Jesus miraculously feeding the multitudes. And that sets up a long discussion of Jesus as the Bread of Life. At the end of this discussion Jesus makes the bold statement that “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me.”

Now we know Jesus is not talking about cannibalism. We know that he is talking about the sacrament of Holy Eucharist. But for his first hearers it is obviously a startling and disturbing statement. And for many of them, they just can’t quite accept who Jesus is – who Jesus really is. They’re offended – they can’t get their minds around it – and they give it up. They turn away. . .

And Peter and Jesus’ other closest friends. What must they have been thinking? It seems that Peter must have been certain of his faith – but at that moment, not necessarily comfortable with it. That’s the difference: the life of faith, even sure faith, is not always comfortable. Sometimes the life of faith is filled with turmoil – doubts and testing. We’re left wondering why God put us where we are – wondering if God really loves us – maybe even wondering if there even is a God. And the question at this point: “Do we chose to turn away?”

Peter’s answers Jesus’ question: “Do you also wish to go away?” with another question. Where else was he to go? Once you recognize and know the Holy One of God, once you have come to place all your trust in that Holy One, where else can you go?

Peter’s answer demonstrates the meaning of faith. Faith means trust . . . loyalty . . . confidence.   Faith is grounded in experience. Faith is built on a relationship with Jesus. It may not be always easy. We may not always want to stay and follow. But where else can we go?

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The truth is: God is always present even when difficulties cloud our ability to understand – and suffering numbs our heart so that it’s hard to reach out to God in prayer.

Many times, I think the most immediate experience of the nearness of God comes to us in and through one another. Teresa of Avila, the 16th century mystic, said that Christ’s body is no longer on earth. Only our own – our own eyes, our hands, our heart, our feet – live out the compassion and presence of God in this world. So when you’re in a tough place, look for God in the person who comes to you , the one who sits next to you and listens with their heart when you need to pour out your suffering.

We experience God here together in this service – in prayer, in praise – in words and song – in sacrament . When we come to the Lord’s Table for the bread of life that never perishes, God is near. Remember that Jesus said, “Come unto me, all ye who travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you.”

So if you came here today wanting to experience God, remember that God is right here – dwelling in us – among us.

“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
            and will save those whose spirits are crushed.”                                                 Amen.

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Healing and the Bread of Life

icon-of-christ-feeding-the-5000
Proper 12B; July 26, 2015
John 6:1-21
The Rev. Jean Hite
Trinity by the Cove Episcopal Church, Naples, FL

Have you noticed over the past several weeks as we’ve been reading through the Gospel of Mark,that most everything in Jesus’ ministry revolves around healing? There are stories about Jesus healing people – and within these stories there are other stories about him healing other people. Then when Jesus sends out his disciples, he tells them to cast out demons, and anoint the sick, and heal them. And even when Jesus is back in his hometown home and can’t do his usual signs of power, he still heals sick people. All this healing – is it only Mark that happens to focus on it?

It’s true that each Gospel has a different perspective, and in Mark, Jesus does a lot of casting out demons and healing the sick. But today we shift from the Gospel of Mark to the Gospel of John– so we have a different perspective. And notice how this lesson in the Gospel of John begins: We learn that “A large crowd was following Jesus, because of the signs that he was doing for the sick.” Yes, Jesus heals, in all the Gospels. Healing is what the Good News is all about.

Actually, when we talk about salvation – when we say that “Jesus saves” – what we really mean is that Jesus heals. He heals body, mind and spirit . . . Jesus heals broken relationships and he reconciles divided groups of people. Jesus restores brokenness to wholeness.

And those demons that Jesus casts out? Those are the injuries and the illness and the addictions that we often don’t want to take responsibility for, that we can’t control without help. Demons are illnesses of our whole body-mind-spirit system, and they take on a life of their own. But Jesus has the power to cast them out . . .

In today’s story in the Gospel of John, a huge group of people comes around the Sea of Galilee to catch up with Jesus – and they’re looking for healing. Jesus is standing up on the hillside next to Philip. They see the crowd coming from quite a way off. Jesus knows that what they want is healing — they’re really not expecting a picnic!

But Jesus’ sense of compassion and hospitality begins to kick in. Jesus nudges Philip, and says, “How are we going to feed all these people?” Philip’s mind begins to spin, and he calculates the cost: Two hundred denarii (that’s about six months wages). But even that wouldn’t be enough to buy bread for this group. So . . . buying bread? Not a rational solution to the problem.

Andrew takes another approach: Here’s what we have, a couple of fish and five loaves of bread. “But what is that among so many people?” So this isn’t a rational solution to the problem either . . . But then Jesus isn’t asking for a rational solution.

Both Philip and Andrew are overcome by the size of the problem. They see it as a problem that they need to solve using their own resources. But Jesus has something else in mind.
The crowd sits down . . . and then Jesus takes the loaves of bread . . . and he gives thanks. Jesus takes what they have, and he gives thanks to God for those five loaves and those two fish, not for the ones that they don’t have or wish they might have.

Here is the pivotal point in this story, the thanksgiving.

Then Jesus distributes the bread and the fish to the people. Now the story we read becomes a miracle, a sign. Jesus is generous and God is generous. Everyone is fed – abundantly – with twelve baskets left over!

Jesus heals them all with food for body and soul. And here this miracle also becomes a sacrament: The outward and visible signs of bread and fish become the inward and spiritual grace of nourishment and healing.

But this group of 5000 sees it differently. When they see Jesus miraculously healing and feeding, it looks like power. The people want to capture Jesus’ power and make him king. But this is not what the bread and the fish are about – it’s not what any of the healing is about . . . And Jesus is able to slip away. . .

And now, this is how the story ends: The disciples get in a boat . . . and soon, they find themselves in a storm. They are very afraid . Then they see Jesus walking on the water, and he says, “It is I, do not be afraid.” They want to grab him into the boat, but right then they find they have reached solid land, the place they are headed for.
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About ten years ago, I came back to the church for the first time in more than thirty years. I had grown up in the Methodist Church. But then I went off to college: I was on my own and life got much more complicated and bus. I was exploring new ways of living, new ways of thinking. And then I found myself on a career path that consumed pretty much all my attention and energy.

As musicians and in our business, my husband Dave and I worked very closely together. We lived a wonderful, successful and joyous life together for about thirty years. But when Dave died very suddenly in 2004, my life – my whole world was shattered. I was alone – broken and hurting. I was afraid . . .

That’s when I found Jesus – or was it that he reached out and found me? This is when I found refuge in the church; I found stability and safety in the church, a place “to ride out the storm.”

During that period of grieving and healing, I was in a loving place where I began to connect with God. And I connected with an inner spiritual center; my energy and heart were realigned with a truth much deeper and more profound than I’d ever known before.

And week after week I was fed and nourished – physically and spiritually fed and healed “with the spiritual food of the most precious body and blood of our Savior Jesus Christ. . .”
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Two thousand years ago on the shores of the Sea of Galilee a miracle happened when Jesus fed 5000 people with the meager offerings of a couple of fish and a few loaves. . .

Ten years ago a miracle happened when I first received the “Bread of Life” at the altar rail. . .

The Good News today is that this miracle is freely offered to us all– repeatedly – whenever we gather here – when bread is taken, blessed, broken and given in Christ’s name . . .
And so today – Let us be generous . . . let us be unafraid . . . and let us give thanks together at the Lord’s table.

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Choices

JBapJuly 12, 2015, Proper 10B
Mark 6:14-29
Jean Hite
Trinity by the Cove

As a priest, it’s my job to preach the Gospel. One of the vows I made at my Ordination to the priesthood was “to proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”  And actually I’m usually pretty inspired – even driven! – to preach the Gospel (gospel: meaning the Good News . . .)

But it’s kind of hard to preach the Gospel today because there seems to be absolutely no good news in this horrible story.  There’s not even any Jesus in this Gospel story . Jesus doesn’t even show up . . .

So what on earth is this tale of anger and revenge, resentment and death doing here in the Gospel of Mark? Where is God in this awful story? What is this scripture trying to say to us?

Let’s go back to the scene of the crime, back to Herod’s birthday party. This lavish feast was in a palace – with a select guest list of important officials. Herod’s wife, Herodias, was there.  This was the wife that Herod had stolen from his brother. John the Baptist had condemned this unlawful marriage.  And for that John landed in prison.

It was actually Herod’s wife Herodias that wanted to do away with John completely. Herod had thrown John in jail – probably to placate his wife. And maybe he was trying to control John’s free-wheeling, public criticism of his marital affairs.  In any case, John was arrested because he was a truth-teller. . . John dared to tell Herod the truth.

Mark, the story teller, tells us that “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man” — and here the meaning fear is the biblical kind: fear meaning respect, ultimate respect.

Herod was in awe of John.  He liked to listen to him because he knew John spoke the truth And, Mark says, “Herod protected John.

So why did Herod give in to this terrible request?  Wasn’t it enough that John was in prison?

Herod had promised Herodias’ daughter that he would give her anything she wanted. He never imagined that she would ask for John’s head – and He was grieved at her request. But his guests had heard his oath. His reputation was at stake. So Herod gave the command, and soon the head of John the Baptist arrived – on a platter.

So the moral of the story?   Perhaps it’s this: The rich and powerful are used to getting what they want. They are willing to do most anything to keep or improve on what they have; and anyone who stands up to them, usually get trampled. That’s what happened to John.

The details of this story are horrific – what Herod did was despicable. But the thing that hits me as the real tragedy in this story is not John the Baptist’s death . . . The real tragedy is Herod’s life.  In addition to being a villain, Herod appears to be a tragic, double-minded wretch.

Herod liked John on one hand. Maybe there was some spark of God that drew him to John’s message . . .  At the same time, Herod was offended by John – he was thrown off balance, insecure within himself.  He was pulled apart, divided.  He doubted.

You see, things could have been different if Herod had listened to his own inner voice that resonated with John. Herod could have made a different choice. But the desire for power and status had replaced God in Herod’s life. Herod couldn’t risk his own reputation to spare John’s life.

Things could have been different if Herod had acted on the truth he heard – if he had not hesitated to act. But as it happened, he doubted that truth . . . he waivered . . . he hesitated . . . and then it was too late. It could have turned out differently for Herod –but he had missed his window of opportunity. . .

At the party, Herod was backed into a corner. He knew it was wrong to grant Herodias’ request, but he had neither the strength of conviction nor the power within himself to make the right choice.

Our lives are filled with choices. Choices can be especially difficult when they challenge our self identity – or our reputation – or our habitual need for power and control . . .

Remember the Apostle Paul when he wrestled with difficult choices – pulled between his own worldly sense of himself and a higher calling? He wrote in the letter to the Romans:

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

Ever been there? All of us will go through it!

So how do we approach difficult choices – and the doubts that challenge our sense of self-identity, our values?

The 19th century author and theologian George MacDonald had this to say:

“Everything difficult indicates something more than our theory of life yet embraces, checks some tendency to abandon the strait path, leaving open only the way ahead.”

Doubts are windows of opportunity.  Doubts will drive you to look at the true foundations of your life.  Doubts will challenge your world view – your view of reality.  Perhaps you’ll realize that you’ve been looking for fulfillment and happiness in all the wrong places.

What is ultimately awesome in your life? . . . Don’t settle for anything less than God!

If you’re feeling open to do something and you know you should do it – if you’re hearing a Divine calling and yet you’re hesitant . . . recognize your doubts for what they are.

And when it’s time to move ahead – make a decision! And with prayer, and with God’s help, move decisively . . . while the opportunity to act is still alive . . .

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O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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The Kingdom is like this

TBTC1June 14, 2015 – Proper 6B
Mark 4:26-34
Jean Hite
Trinity by the Cove, Naples, FL

In the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, the very first thing Jesus does after his baptism and his temptation in the wilderness — the very first thing he does as he begins his healing and teaching ministry in the world – Jesus announces to the world that “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”

When you hear the words “the kingdom of God” what comes to mind? Is there an image or story that comes into your mind about what the kingdom God might be like?

No one can say in words exactly what it’s like, of course, but for many people the picture that sticks in their minds is a high, lofty and holy place – like the one they first imagined as heaven when they were kids – maybe in Sunday School days.

At one point early on in my life, I heard that the roads in heaven are paved with gold. And that was probably about the time I saw the movie, the Wizard of Oz for the first time. So the yellow brick road struck me as quite heavenly – along with all the other fanciful scenes in that movie.

But in the end I decided that couldn’t really be heaven. There was the wicked witch – and of course she wouldn’t have made it to heaven. And the great Oz turned out to be a fake.

But the biggest problem I had with the Oz-like heaven was this: I thought heaven was the place that you would want to go to when the time coame, and you would just want to get away to that place and stay there – forever – in heaven. But after Dorothy totally conquered Oz, she wanted to go back to ordinary, everyday life –in Kansas.

Actually I think that we might be on to something with that “follow the yellow brick road” image – that maybe the kingdom of God isn’t exactly a place, but maybe it could actually be more like a journey . . . ???

Tuck away that “journey idea” for now – for another sermon, another day  –and let’s go back to the gospel …

Today’s gospel is about Jesus teaching with parables — using metaphors to describe the kingdom of God. Have you ever wondered why Jesus teaches in this obscure way? Why doesn’t he just come right out and say who God is – what the kingdom of God is? But throughout his ministry, Jesus speaks indirectly – comparing holy things to ordinary, everyday things.

In this passage Jesus makes two metaphorical comparisons:

First:  The kingdom of God is like seed that a farmer plants and then he forgets about it. While the seed is hidden in the ground, it sprouts and grows, producing grain. We’re told that “the earth produces of itself” — without any help from the person who scattered the seed.  God is ultimately in control of growth in the kingdom of God – not the farmer.

Second comparison: The kingdom is like a mustard seed – the smallest of all seeds – that miraculously grows into the greatest of all shrubs.  The mustard seed is a symbol for persistence and growth in the kingdom of God.

The amazing things about both these images are their essential hiddenness and their smallness – seed hidden in the ground, especially the very small mustard seed.

So, the kingdom is like something that’s not clearly and immediately visible – not readily apparent to the eye. It’s something just below the surface of things – waiting to be discovered, nurtured and enjoyed. Realizing its presence may take time and intentional awareness, but its potential magnitude is beyond our comprehension.

Reflecting on these images, we can see that Jesus taught holy and profound truths by telling stories from everyday life. Jesus is talking to farmers, when he tells the story of the sower who goes out to sow seed – and the farmers in the crowd will immediately know about mustard seeds, as well. They are tiny seeds to be sure — but once they find their way into your field they grow like wildfire. (That’s because the Middle Eastern variety of mustard is an invasive plant – like our Brazilian pepper plant.)

Something we might learn from Jesus’ story telling is this: It’s very important to learn to read our own lives. It seems to me that Jesus may be telling us, that our lives are full of kingdom moments if we only have eyes to see – that our lives today are immersed in the kingdom of God. But we need to wake up to Jesus’ presence with us – wake up to the signs that God is continually working around us . . . and in us and through us.

Jesus promises to be with us always. But for that to work – if we want to know the promise of Jesus’ presence, we need to live in the now. To put it in other words: we need to be really present to life to know Jesus’ real presence with us. And with Jesus – the kingdom of God has come very near – now!

At the risk of adding a few more metaphors to the mix, I’ll share with you some of what the Kingdom of God has been like for me since I joined you here at Trinity by the Cove . . .

  • The Kingdom of God is as if someone puts a beautiful flowering begonia on your desk your first day on the job . . .
  • The Kingdom of God is like a crayfish boil — on a hot afternoon — with an occasional gentle breeze . . .
  • The Kingdom of God is like a family fishing tournament – where if you’re lucky you win a prize – but you know the real prize is the people you’re with . . .

So what is the kingdom of God like for you?

This one thing I can tell you with confidenceif you find a metaphor or a story that works for you, that feels true and bears the fruit of God’s love in your heart, go with it!

Whenever, wherever, however you find the Kingdom of God live into it – live out of it. . .

The kingdom of God is like this.  It is as if the Divine seed grows abundantly within your heart. . . So keep your eyes and your heart open for it!

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Saying YES to the Spirit of Transition

ascension1Sermon:  Ascension Sunday
May 17, 2015
Acts 1:1-11
Jean Hite
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Bonita Springs, FL

We’ve all been through it – and without a doubt we’ll go through it again … as a matter of fact, we’re going through it right now as a parish community. It’s a time of change, a time of saying good-byes . . . and with that can come a feeling of loss and grief.

But every end is a beginning. And so while we’re saying goodbye, at the same time, we’re looking forward with hope and excitement to new relationships, new directions, new energy. And what at first seemed to leave our world turned upside down – can begin to lead to the promise of good and wonderful things to come.

Things are changing here at St. Mary’s. The worship space is taking on a fantastic new look – yes? At the same time we’re saying good-bye to some in the community: Fr. George has retired, so although he’s staying here with us, we’re saying good-by to his more active ministry –  Denise will be leaving her office ministry after many, many years – and I’m saying good-bye to you today . . . All this leaves us in a time of significant transition.

So what does this feel like for you? What are you experiencing during this transition? . . . Does it leave you feeling anxious or scared . . .dazed … maybe even some how lost?  Or does it inspire excitement for the future, even hope for new purpose and new meaning in your life here together?

(And just know that you’re not crazy if you feel a little bit of all these things from time to time . . . change does that. And if there’s a sense of being off-balance in it all, that can be just the time that the Holy Spirit enters your life in dramatic ways!)

The reading from Acts this morning describes the scene of Jesus’ Ascension – and his disciples and followers are watching him leave – lifted up – out of their sight. Think back over what they’ve been through. Jesus left them once before before – at his crucifixion. At that point their total focus was gone, the meaning of their lives was gone.

Try putting yourself in their place. We’re one of those long-term followers of Jesus; we’ve been following around after him for about three years. We’ve seen him do some pretty fantastic things – healing people when they’re sick, feeding them when they’re hungry.

Because Jesus is with us and we’re with him, our life has taken on new purpose and a sense of fulfillment – life for the first time seems worthwhile.   We’re on a roll. Things seem secure and we’re where we want to be. We follow Jesus to Jerusalem and he enters into the city with crowds cheering him on. But by mid week things start to change – they change drastically. Jesus is talking about leaving – and by that he means he will be killed, brutely – this is how he will leave. And he says some mystical sounding words: “I am leaving you but I am coming to you.”

True to the words he spoke and the words written in scripture, he is killed – crucified. And we’re left feeling: anxious and frightened . . . lost . . . even abandoned. It seems the total focus of life is gone, and we can only wonder: “Is Jesus gone? Is he really gone?”

But then he appears again: we see him, we talk with him, we walk with him, we eat with him. He is here alive . . . very much alive. (This is during those forty days after we first discovered that the tomb was empty and the two angels said “He is not here, he is risen.”) Our lives are lifted up along with him in new life. Joy and purpose return . . . . . . “Is he gone?” . . . Oh, no!! He is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

And now, as we join the disciples in today’s reading from Acts, we are asking if NOW is the time when the kingdom will be restored. Has the Kingdom of God – on earth — arrived? And Jesus’ answer? It is not for us to know how or when. We must accept in faith; it’s out of our control. We must surrender this all to God’s plan and His timing. But . . . we are promised that God’s presence and power are coming in the Holy Spirit.

But just then He is gone … again … lifted up … his physical presence, his energy ascending. Can you imagine being there, wanting to cling to His energy, follow Him as he rises up, follow that energy pulling us up and into a union of Spirit in love.

But we’re still here on earth.. Our hour has not yet come. And we’re left suspended … left waiting and expectant. We have been raised, at least for the present, to a higher place, in a plane suspended between heaven and earth. We’re on the threshold of an awesome new dimension – our eyes and hearts have been opened to the prospect of a new exciting reality, out of time, out of space. But our feet are still firmly planted on the ground.   And it’s here that we, as the church, are waiting for Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit will come.

Back to the scene with the disciples and the story from Acts. Jesus gives his followers a commission: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth And he said to his followers, “Stay here. Wait. Wait until you have been clothed with power.” . . . Why the wait? Why must we sit and wait . . .

Perhaps it’s God who is waiting — waiting for us, for me and for you, to respond – waiting for us to say “yes” with our lives – to say “yes” in readiness — or at least in willingness — to co-operate with God for what God has in mind for our lives – for our lives and for the world we live in . . .

Dag Hammarskjöld, the great Secretary General of the United Nations in the late 1950’s — Hammarskjöld wrote these words in his diary just before Pentecost in 1961:

“…at some moment I did answer Yes . . . and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”

As we wait for Pentecost, maybe God is waiting for us to say Yes to Him with our lives– the Yes that will open up the channel of God’s power at work within us and through us. And today as we say our goodbyes during this time of transition at St. Mary’s, our prayer can be this:

“For all that has been “Thanks! For all that will be “Yes.”

Today we’re celebrating Ascension Sunday. . . “Is Jesus gone . . . up, up and away? Is he really gone? Not if you remember his promise of the Holy Spirit – because the promise of the Spirit is a promise for this earth, this place, this time – today.

Ascension Day is not a call to sit by – passively — looking upward:

  • It is a call to say “yes” to all that has been and all that will be. . .
  • It is a call to pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit . . .
  • And it is a call to trust that Jesus’ promise is down here – NOW — in and around us.

The Holy Spirit is coming . . . and is continuing to come – and if we say Yes, that Holy Spirit will surprise us at most every turn and transition in our lives here and now !!

Let us pray:

Come Holy Spirit, come to us in this time and place – in our time of transition. . .

  • Come to us when we sit in silence and wait for you . . .
  • and come to us when we are moving too fast to even be aware of you.
  • Transform us as we say Yes to you . . .     . . .
  • Surprise us . . . revive us . . . and shape us into the Body of Christ. Amen.

(Prayer adapted from The Rev. Dr. Barbara Lundblad)

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