Called Out of the Boat?

icon_peter_walking_on_waterA sermon offered August 10, 2014
at St. Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples, Florida
Proper 14, Year A, Matthew 14:22-33

As we look at today’s gospel reading for the next few minutes – I invite you to let your imagination pull you into the scene. As you think about the story, ask yourself if there is some person, or some idea, or some words that grab your attention. Are there words that seem to be saying something directly to you? Or is there a particular person that you identify with?

Here’s how the story goes – first some background and then the story itself. Try putting yourself into the action.

This story comes immediately after the one we heard last week where Jesus and his disciples feed more than 5000 people with just a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread. This miraculous dinner obviously causes some excitement. Then, it seems, that in order to bring emotional levels back down to some kind of reasonable level, Jesus makes the disciples go away, get in a boat and head for the other side of the lake. And he graciously pushes the crowds away – tells them to go home so he can have some alone time.

Jesus heads up the mountain to pray, and while he’s up on the mountain by himself, the disciples find themselves in the boat – out quite a way from land – in the middle of a horrific storm.

Are any of you boaters – or have you had some experience being out on the water? Imagine yourself onboard with the disciples in this story – on a sailboat – probably about 25 feet long and 7 feet wide, with only enough room to hold about twelve people – the twelve disciples, in our case.

The sea of Galilee is actually more like a lake. It’s fairly shallow – about 150 feet at the deepest point. And because it’s shallow, the winds can whip up the water fast and furious without much warning.

The potential for dangerous storms is made even worse because of the high mountains right by the shore. When the cool dry air off the mountains meets the warm, moist, semi-tropical air around the sea, it creates strong funnel shaped winds that drop down onto the water and cause violent waves. This makes for serious danger for anyone caught out on a boat during a storm.

The sea of Galilee is only about 64 square miles so you’re never really out of sight of land when you’re out on the water – never out of sight of land when it’s daytime, that is. And remember: as we’re out here with the disciples, it’s night time, and there is no artificial light 2000 years ago when this story happens. So as you’re imagining yourself in this boat – imagine pitch black – in the middle of a scary storm. And it seems that we’re in a whole lot of trouble!

Back on the mountain, it turns out that Jesus has been monitoring our treacherous voyage. Then, somewhere around 4:00 o’clock in the morning, as we’re out on the stormy sea, we look out into the darkness. We see – we think we see – Jesus walking on the water. With the terror of the wind and the waves, we’re not thinking very rationally at this point – so we don’t quite know what to make of this vision of Jesus out there in the middle of a storm.

Then we hear – we think we hear – Jesus’ voice saying “Take heart, it is I – don’t be afraid.”

I hope you’re still with me – still imagining that you’re sitting in this boat, taking this all in. You may want to take some time at this point to try to make some kind of sense of this scene. But, of course, none of this makes sense – rationally. We’re in the land of the miraculous here, most likely suspended for the moment between faith and doubt – suspended between faith and fear.

But our friend Peter, impetuous Peter who always seems to have something crazy to offer – Peter hops up and asks Jesus to command him to walk on the water too. Sounds like a pretty stupid idea! But Jesus says: OK come on out of the boat.

Now, as you’re watching this – what do you think? Should Peter have kept his mouth shut and stayed in the boat? . . .

Stay in the boat – actually, this is exactly the conclusion many early Christians came to when they read this scripture. Stay faithfully in the boat! For early Christians, the boat represented the stability and safety of the church . . . and, they thought, “That’s where we’re supposed to ride out the storm!”

But Peter, being Peter – he hops out of the boat . . . and he actually does start walking toward Jesus. At that moment, he’s doing exactly what Jesus is doing – he’s walking on water. And doing what Jesus does – isn’t that part of our commission as Christians?

But then, as we’re watching all this from the boat, we see Peter start to sink as he realizes what he’s doing: He’s doing something that he can’t possibly do – and in the middle of a deadly storm at that. He’s scared – he takes his eyes off Jesus – and he starts to go under.

But from some innate sense of knowing where true safety lies – from his deep, yet still-young, still-developing faith – he knows where salvation comes from. Peter cries out for Jesus to save him – and Jesus reaches out to him and pulls him up.

So – who do you identify with at this point in the story: Peter or the other disciples – the impetuous, risk-taking Peter or the rational disciples who see their best chance of survival in the safety of the boat?

Should Peter have stayed in the boat? He could have saved himself the embarrassment of failure by just stopping to think before he hopped out. He could have avoided being publicly chastised when Jesus said to him “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

About ten years ago, I came back to the church for the first time in more than thirty years. I grew up in the Methodist Church. But then I went off to college: I was on my own and life got much more complicated and busy – 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. My husband and I worked together – as musicians. We lived a wonderful and joyous life together for about thirty years.

But when Dave died suddenly in 2004, my life – my whole world was shattered. I was alone, broken and hurting. That’s when I found Jesus – or, perhaps, he reached out and found me – and that’s 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 an inner spiritual center, realigning my energy and heart with a truth much deeper and more profound than I’d ever known before. But as I was continuing to live and grow in the church, I started hearing voices – voices from the church family, as well as a voice inside myself. I started wondering about the possibility of ordination . . . and going back to school, to seminary.

There was also the entirely rational voice in my head that said: “You know, that sounds like a pretty stupid idea! Going back to school at the age of 54 isn’t going to be easy – you may fall flat on your face. And besides you’ve just now found a nice, safe place to “ride out the rest of the storm” – the rest of your life. Why jump out of the boat at this point?

But I did end up jumping out. It was risky – an impetuous move, maybe . . . I wonder if that’s what it was like for Peter.

Like Peter, I’ve taken my eyes off Jesus lots of times. I’ve gotten scared and started to sink. But Jesus has always been there to grab me, to catch me, to support me . . . and set me up straight again. That’s the thing about the gospel, I think – it doesn’t just tell you to do something. It makes it possible to do it. Sometimes, it actually makes it seem impossible not to.

So what do you think: should Peter have stayed in the boat?

Actually, the good news is that Jesus is always with us wherever we are – and he works through all of us wherever we are. Jesus is both in the boat and on the water outside the boat! But you know what The Spirit is saying to me in today’s gospel story?

“If you’re even going to begin to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat!”

What boat might you be called to step out of ?

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Breaking Bread

Breaking of bread at EmmausBe present, be present, O Jesus, our great High Priest, as you were present with your disciples . . . and be known to us in the breaking of bread. . .           Amen.

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Alleluia! Christ is Risen!  He is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

 And now what happens?  What do you do next –after Easter Day is over?

 After the Easter celebration here at St. Nathaniel’s, many of our brothers and sisters packed up the car after Easter and headed north. For us most of us the days after Easter mark the beginning of the summer season – time to get on with the usual summer routine.  For me, I was tired after Holy Week and Easter Sunday – so I decided to take a couple days off.

What did the first followers of Jesus do after Easter? If you remember the story from last week a group of the disciples are huddling together in a room in Jerusalem on the evening of the first Easter. They are confused about what has happened, and they are afraid of what might happen to them next. They decide to stay put – hiding and hoping not to be found.

But for Cleopas and his friend in Luke’s gospel reading today, they decide to leave Jerusalem on the afternoon of the first Easter. We don’t know why they decide to leave – why they break away from the rest of the disciples and head on home to Emmaus. Maybe they’re looking for a safe escape from the trouble that may lie ahead in Jerusalem.

But mostly it seems they’re just tired – and they’re discouraged – they’ve had enough. They had been hoping that Jesus “was the one to redeem Israel,” but the events of the past days have brought an end to their hope.

In the first part of the story Cleopas and his friend have no idea who Jesus is when he approaches them on the road – when he interrupts their conversation. I wonder . . . how could these two disciples not recognize Jesus? Was it because of their despair and hopelessness, tremendous grief coming from being sure that Jesus was dead ? Was it despondency that left them blind to the very presence they thought they had lost? Or could there have been some kind of unrecognizable transformation in the Risen Body of Jesus? Here, again, we don’t know why – why they’re unaware that the stranger standing with them is actually Jesus himself . . .

But they do remember vividly what just happened in Jerusalem. And when Jesus asks them what they’re talking about, they get the chance to go through it all one more – they repeat for Jesus the story his earthly life as “a prophet mighty in word and deed”; they tell him about his horrible death; and they tell him the Easter story, as well – the story about the empty tomb and the angel’s message that Jesus is alive. But that’s where it stops – because they haven’t yet seen Jesus for themselves.

And this is where Jesus steps in to meet Cleopas and his friend. He doesn’t come to them in Jerusalem . . . he doesn’t go ahead and wait for them at home in Emmaus. . . he meets them right where they are – on the road, in the middle of the journey, in the middle of all their pain and frustration.

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Now notice the pattern of what happens next:

• First Jesus opens up the Scriptures for them. He helps them make sense of what they just experienced in Jerusalem – this in light of the Scripture. He explains the whole story of God’s redemption in and through the cross.

• And then Jesus sits down at their table and shares a meal with them – he takes the Bread and lifts it up in blessing . . . he breaks the Bread and then gives it to them.

And in this simple, familiar setting they recognize him. Through the interpretation of Scripture and the sharing of the meal, the eyes of Cleopas and his friend are opened – they recognize the person of Jesus and they recognize the presence of the living God . . .

Then Jesus is gone – and the two disciples spontaneously know they need to be gone too. They get up – and go back to Jerusalem to tell Jesus’ followers there what they’ve seen.

They share the Good news!  News too good to keep to themselves . . .

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Can you find yourself in this story?  Can you find us in this story?

The opening up of scripture and sharing food and drink? – actually that’s what we do every Sunday. We come together here to listen to the sacred Scriptures; we spend some time listening to a sermon that intends to interpret the Scriptures. And then we invite all the faithful to gather at the Table for the breaking of bread. For us, too, this is where we recognize Jesus, the one who meets us here where we are and goes with us from here – on our way.

Luke has a reason for including this post-resurrection appearance story in his gospel. It’s a response to the desire of later Christians like us to see the Risen Lord – to encounter Jesus Christ personally just like first believers did.

Remember John’s story last week about doubting Thomas? – where Jesus blesses all Christians who believe without seeing – That includes us! And again this week the message is for us – the real life encounter is for us and for everyone who is gathering this Sunday to interpret the Scriptures and share the bread.

And so we pray . . .

Be present, be present, O Jesus, our great High Priest, as you were present with your disciples . . . and be known to us in thebreaking of  bread. . .           Amen.

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Fear and Joy!

Matt28Easter Day
Acts 10:34-43; Colossians 3:1-4; Matthew 28:1-10
St. Nathaniel’s Episcopal Church
Jean Hite

Alleluia, Christ is risen! (And you say?) He is risen indeed! Alleluia . . . . .
Do you use that greeting during the Easter season? It’s a custom, especially in Eastern Orthodox churches, that instead of saying hello, you say to your Christian brother or sister “Christ is risen!” – and she or he says “Christ is risen indeed!” And maybe you even exchange a triple kiss on alternating cheeks!

So . . . Alleluia, Christ is risen! (Response: He is risen indeed! Alleluia . . .) Let’s celebrate!! A day of pure joy!

But according to Matthew’s gospel joy is not the only thing that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were feeling when they ran off that first Easter – when they left the empty tomb looking for the disciples. There was joy for sure but also great fear. The message delivered by the angels is clear: “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised.”

This message – “Do not be afraid” – is, in many ways, at the core of Good News. It’s announced throughout Scripture by angels and messengers at key moments in the biblical story. It always announces the empowering words of faith and courage – the very essence of the gospel.
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In this scene from Matthew, the women’s fear is totally understandable! Matthew describes what is probably the most alarming and awe-inspiring picture of the resurrection of the four gospel accounts. First, there is an earthquake . . . it reminds us of the earthquake that erupted when Jesus died.

And the stone . . . it’s still blocking the entrance to the tomb when the women arrive on scene. Then an angel of the Lord appears and rolls back the stone. The angel’s appearance must have been frightening – with a face like lightning and clothes so white and so bright and so awesome. This angel is so terrifying that the guards at the tomb immediately faint in terror.

So it’s no wonder these women are afraid – and no wonder that the angel speaks words of comfort and courage:
“Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised.”

However, the message doesn’t stop there: after the fear, and after the words of courage, comes a an invitation and a directive:
“Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”

And they do it – they respond! They come and see and then run and tell. … Matthew describes in their obedience a mixture of fear and joy.

I wonder if that isn’t the reality of our lives also. Don’t we live lives filled with both fear and joy? . . . Fear of what may happen to us – and to our children – in a dangerous world; joy in the blessings in everyday life, joy in family and friends.

There’s the fear of whether we will have a job in the year to come; joy in the colleagues that surround us.
… fear about the future of a loved one struggling with illness; joy in the gift that person has been to us.
… fear about the future amid political and social problems in the world; joy in the present moment surrounded by those we love.
… and maybe there’s even some fear about the future of our church; but there’s joy in our call to serve God and joy in the people of our community.

As for the women in the gospel story, I think it’s important to note that the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t take away all their fear. But it does enable them to keep faith amid their fears . . . to do their duty and share the Good News in spite of their anxiety.

Sometimes we’re tempted to believe that committing to faith in Jesus Christ should smooth out all the rough places in our lives – solve all our problems. Instead, I think that the gospel gives us the ability to keep on our feet amid the troubles – and not just to be able to persevere, but even to flourish when life is difficult.

“Do not be afraid” . . . Jesus himself repeats this message when he appears to the women. And this gives us insight into our own lives in our world. There is, definitely much to fear in our mortal lives. But the resurrection of Christ creates the possibility for joy and hope and courage . . . and so much more.

Jesus’ resurrection changes everything. In the resurrection, we have God’s promise that life is stronger than death, that love is greater than hate . . . and that all the sufferings and difficulties of this life are transient — real and present, and sometimes very painful, for sure, — but they do not have the last word.

Fear and joy . . . despair and hope . . . doubt and faith . . . . . . these all are the two sides of our lives. But in the end we know the resurrection promise that joy, hope, and faith will ultimately prevail. It’s a powerful message!

Christ’s resurrection demonstrates that our God is a God of new life and never-ending possibility. The good news of Christ’s resurrection does not take away our fear – even though there are times when we wish so desperately that it would. But it does offer courage and hope with the assurance that God will have the last word . . . and that word is one of light and life … grace and mercy … love and peace.
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In the Maundy Thursday homily, I suggested that the story of the Triduum – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday (including the Easter Vigil continuing into Easter day) – – – it’s like a theatrical play in three acts. That means that today is Act III – the final act. We’ve come to the end of the play. And Matthew – the playwright – has left us holding this tension between joy and fear. And he’s left us still seeking, still looking ahead to a meeting with Jesus in Galilee.

As believers in Jesus Christ and seekers of Jesus’ truth, we grow in faith when we continue to seek – we grow deeper in our relationship with Jesus when we keep looking ahead to the next meeting. We continue to seek because, somehow, we’ve already encountered the Holy Other – we’ve already seen the Risen Jesus. In our baptisms we have been buried with Jesus in his death – and we know that we will live with him in his resurrection.

The joy and the fear at the end of Matthew’s gospel is still always waiting to be embraced . . . it’s waiting for you and me. How will you live the resurrection story? How will you tell the resurrection story?

As for Matthew’s three-act drama? You and I are continuing to write the script. You and I are living the sequel!

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For Our Salvation

palmPalm–Passion Sunday 2014
Matthew 21:1-11, Philippians 2:5-11, Matthew 26:14- 27:66
April 13, 2014
St. Nathaniel’s Episcopal Church, North Port, FL

Almighty God,
Your beloved Son did not rise up in joy . . . until first he suffered death . . .
He did not enter into glory . . . until first he was crucified;
We pray for your mercy . . . and ask that as we struggle to follow in the way of His Cross, we may be transformed in your way of life and peace;                                     . . . Amen.

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This prayer is a paraphrase of the prayer we prayed in the Narthex on our way into the church this morning. It’s a familiar prayer in its Prayer Book form. And it’s especially appropriate for this Sunday of the Passion – for Palm Sunday –because it spells out a couple of the paradoxes of Palm Sunday:

  • it contrasts Jesus’ rising up in joy” with his “first suffering death.”
  • and it contrasts “entering into glory” but “first being crucified.”

If you want to refer to the written form of the prayer, it’s on the second page of your bulletin – right above the horizontal line. Actually you can think of that horizontal line – and this prayer – as the threshold you stepped over when you came through those doors this morning. And did you notice what happened when you crossed that threshold? The scene quickly shifted . . .

We were having a glorious time outside – the weather was glorious and the garden has been so lovingly tended in recent days – a really lovely scene for the blessing of the palms. And then with our palm-waving parade, we remembered – we actually acted out – that glorious day when Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time:

Matthew tells us that a very large crowd of people had gathered – and that they spread their coats on the road, and cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road – to pave the way for Jesus’ triumphant entry into the city. And they were singing “Hosanna” – like we did this morning – “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

But then, when Jesus crossed the threshold into the city, Matthew tells us that suddenly the whole city was in turmoil – the city was in turmoil asking, “Who is this?” And the crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” The city was in turmoil because Jesus the prophet had returned to Jerusalem to face his execution.

And just now we heard this part of the story. . . the passion gospel . . . a story of betrayal and denial, rejection and desertion – pain of all sorts – a story of suffering and death. . .

Wouldn’t it have been nice to just skip that part? Why not celebrate today by waving our palms and singing “Hosanna in the Highest” – and then move right along into next Sunday, Resurrection Sunday, shouting “Alleluia!! Christ IS RISEN!”

But, as you know, Hosanna and Alleluia are not the WHOLE Gospel story. There is also darkness in this story . . . there is pain . . . And in between today’s Hosannas and next Sunday’s Alleluias there is a profound expression of Love at the dinner table on Maundy Thursday . . . and there is grief – and tears of forgiveness – and the working out of our salvation in Jesus’ death on the Cross on Good Friday.

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Our salvation – that’s the ultimate significance of the passion gospel – and of these next seven days. In the course of a short week, Jesus goes from being welcomed as a prophet and a king to being tried and killed as an outcast, a criminal, a loser … and all for our salvation.

Jesus endures what he endures, suffers what he suffers, and loses all that he has … for us.

But it’s not because we’re such awful sinners that Jesus has to be punished for us. . . Actually we are sinners, of course – we’re confused – we’re hurtful and hurting all at the same time.

But this story isn’t about God punishing Jesus: It’s not God who greets Jesus as a king one day and then demands his death the next: it’s the angry and volatile crowds. And it’s not God who hangs Jesus on the cross; it’s the religious leaders.

How could this happen? Why did they turn against Jesus?  Jesus came into the world preaching and teaching, healing and feeding – what’s not to like about that?

But that’s not all he does. He also proclaims the coming of God’s kingdom … and he offers forgiveness of sins to anyone who asks for it. And that’s what gets him into trouble with the people and rulers of his day . . . and with us today, as well. We’d rather not admit our brokenness, and our need, and our total helplessness when we’re separated from God. We’d rather pretend that we’ve got it all together – we prefer to continue to live the lie that we don’t need or want anything. And rather than confess our sin and receive Jesus’ forgiveness, we reject him. . .
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But the good news of the gospel is that Jesus takes on our humanity – he becomes one of us and takes on our sin – and he does all this to show us how much God loves us:

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
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Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians:

Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.”

The question, then, becomes: what difference does this make to us? Does it matter that Jesus died for us? Will it influence how we response to God – or will it change how we live with our neighbors and the world?

Going back to Paul – in the beginning of his famous hymn to Christ – he urges us to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus….”

I wonder . . . Could it be easier to love others since we personally know God’s unconditional love for us? Could it be possible to forgive others since we personally know God’s incredible forgiveness and mercy on us?

However we answer these questions – and however we try to let Christ’s mind be in us – – however we may be struggling in our lives today . . . the truth is this:

Jesus came to us, became one of us, took on our life … he suffered and died on the cross . . . And he did it all so that we could know how much God loves us…

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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What a Friend

lazarusLent V – Year A
John 11:1-45
April 6, 2014
St. Nathaniel’s Episcopal Church, North Port

John 11:1-54
The Death of Lazarus
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

Jesus the Resurrection and the Life
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

Jesus Weeps
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death.

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Another long gospel reading today! This is the last of the long gospel readings for Lent. Next week is Palm Sunday, and instead of a straight-away gospel reading next Sunday, we’ll be hearing a dramatic reading of the Passion story, written by Matthew, performed by you all, the actors. But even as you were listening to the long reading this morning, did you notice tucked in there the shortest verse in the Bible – the one you probably learned by heart early on – in the King James Version: “Jesus wept.”

Setting aside all the other words of today’s extra long reading for minute, let’s just consider the significance of those words Jesus wept. What does it mean to us today that Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus? What do his tears mean to us?

In our society, in our culture, tears are often dismissed as inappropriate or something to apologize for. We often times try to hold back tears to avoid embarrassment, either for ourselves or the person we are with. Through all this we may suppress or try to hide our human feelings, our human emotions. But tears are a very true, healthy human expression, and this is why Jesus’ tears in this story are important.

“Jesus began to weep.” This verse serves as an authentic mark of Jesus’ humanity.  Jesus’ tears are an emotional testimony to the truth of Jesus’ incarnation, that Jesus was and is truly one of us – to the point of sharing our human need for friendship and sharing our grief at the loss of a spouse, a friend, a loved one . . .

Some of the people who were there with Jesus reacted to his tears by saying “See how he loved him!” The Greek word for “love” here is not the verb agapē— which is the God-like, unconditional love that we come across often in the Bible. Instead it is philia, the human everyday Greek word for “friendship,” the ordinary human love we have for our friends. Jesus love for Lazarus is the purely human kind.

Jesus is one of us – he knows our human sorrow, our grief – because he’s human, just like us. All this reminds me of the words of the hymn —

What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear . . .
In his arms he’ll take and shield thee;
thou wilt find a solace there.” . . .

So Jesus is human and he identifies with our humanness. This is one of the ways the story of the raising of Lazarus speaks to our human need today .
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There are a couple of other points in the story that particularly strike me when I think about the significance of the story of the raising of Lazarus and the immediate impact it has on our lives.

When Jesus first hears that Lazarus is seriously ill, he doesn’t immediately rush off to see him. He waits an extra two days. There’s some discussion with the disciples about Lazarus falling asleep – and by this Jesus means that he is dead.

But when Jesus arrives on the scene, Martha questions him about his late arrival. Jesus assures her that her brother will rise again, and Martha answers that she knows he will be resurrected on the last day.

But Jesus wants to expand her understanding; he seems to want to tell Martha that it’s not just about the future – and mansions prepared for us in some distant time and place. It’s also about the immediate present. Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” – resurrected life today.

Our first impression may be the same as Martha’s. We tend to focus on our own resurrection as a distant promise, our eternal life with God and Jesus off in a place we call heaven. But what does it mean that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? What if we are raised to new life right now, right here – with Jesus who is here and now?

For Lazarus, the Gospel doesn’t talk about his future with Jesus, it talks about his present. Lazarus and his sisters once again entertain Jesus; they eat with him in their home.

Jesus’ promises – God’s promises – are not just about eternal life with God after we die, not just about God’s forgiveness at the last day. The Gospel makes a difference in our lives now – makes new things possible now – opens up opportunities now – transforms relationships now – – – heals our emotional and spiritual wounds – now . . .  The promises of God are present tense, not just future.
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Returning to the gospel story for another observation: I think it’s important that Jesus calls Lazarus by name. Lazarus participates actively.

And then after Lazarus hears Jesus and comes out of the tomb still wrapped in the burial clothes, the miracle is not yet over. After Jesus commands Lazarus to come out, Jesus then commands to the crowd to get involved: “Unbind him and let him go.” Jesus commands the community to participate – they are the ones who complete God’s action. Yes, the raising of Lazarus from death to new life is entirely Jesus’ work, yet Jesus invites the community to do something essential and meaningful and important.

Could that mean that we have a part to play in completing the coming of God’s kingdom today – that God uses us to complete his work in the world?
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The final verses of the gospel reading today take us into next Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week. These verses are crucial to the plot of John’s passion narrative.

As it turns out Jesus’ resurrection of his dead friend serves as the nail in Jesus’ own coffin. The Pharisees decide to kill Jesus because of this miracle. They see Jesus as a threat. They fear that the Romans will destroy their temple – their whole nation – when they hear about Jesus’ growing power and influence.

Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, made the prophetic statement “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” Caiaphas was speaking an ironic truth in these words, fore-telling that Jesus would die for the nation – and not only the nation and the Jewish people, but for the whole world — for all time.
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The plot against Jesus begins with Jesus weeping at the death of his friend. Jesus’ enemies think it will all end on Good Friday. But it won’t end until Easter Day and Resurrection. That’s when we discover what a Friend we have in Jesus – not only in Jesus as the human Presence of God – but also in the complete all-powerful, all- knowing, all-loving God who raises Jesus from the dead!

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Living Water – Gift of Life

060810_2012_comemeetthe1Lent IIIA
Exodus 17:1-7
; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42; Psalm 95
Sermon offered at St. Nathaniel’s Episcopal Church
March 23, 2014

Jesus talks longer to the woman at the well than he does to anyone else in all the Gospels – this conversation is longer than any Jesus has with his disciples . . . or his adversaries  . . . or his own family.

The woman at the well is the first person in the Gospel of John to discover who Jesus really is.  She’s the first one to tell others about it –  and that makes her the first evangelist.

This all is very curious because she’s actually about the last person you might think Jesus would choose to engage in conversation –

First of all, she’s a Samaritan  – and in Jesus day Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along well.  Samaria was enemy territory for any Jew passing through, as Jesus and his disciples were on this trip.

And of course she was a woman – and women in those days were not spoken to in public, even by their husbands.

Not only was she a woman, but there’s a hint in the scripture reading that she was perhaps not accepted by other woman who would have visited the well together in the morning hours –  not at noon when this meeting up with Jesus at the well took place.  Although we don’t know the details and shouldn’t necessarily jump to conclusions, we do learn that she has been married five times and is living with a man who is not her husband.

So from Jesus’ point of view, she was an outsider – a triple outsider:  a Samaritan, a woman, and a fallen woman.  What a surprise it must have been for her to find Jesus at the well, to enter into conversation with him, and then to find out that he already knew all about her!

And that’s precisely how the miracle transpires:  By telling the woman who she is, Jesus shows her who he is. – and that’s how it still works for us.  It’s in Jesus presence that we come to know who we are – the bad as well as the good.  And it’s Jesus’ who accepts us, loves us – forgiving where forgiveness is needed – and opens the channels to new light and life, new hope, new joy . . .

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The woman at the well?  Her name isn’t given to us in the scripture – although in the Eastern Christian Church she’s venerated as a saint.  For the Greek Orthodox Church she is St. Photina – Photina coming from the Greek word phos which means light.  Photina is the one whom Jesus enlightens when she encounters him at the well – when he offers her living water.  She was enlightened . . . She was transformed . . .

But this living water – what is it?

It’s symbolic language – the words living water.  Jesus is making an analogy between physical water and spiritual water.  Water is a very powerful spiritual symbol: it has cleansing power – redemptive power . . .

There are several ways of interpreting who or what this living water actually is:

Some say the Living Water is the Holy Spirit – the advocate and guide that Jesus sends us when he — physically and meta-physically — returns to the Father . . .

Some say that Jesus himself is the living water.

Actually both these interpretations can be true at the same time.  It’s part of the mystery of transformation . . . when a symbol becomes a sacrament . . . “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” . . .

Sacramentally we receive this living water in baptism.  We’re immersed in living water when we’re “buried with Christ in his death” and then share in his resurrection.  Through living water we are reborn by the Holy Spirit . . . We are transformed . . .

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Later on in the story of the woman at the well, the disciples come back to the well —  and the woman runs off.  Jesus takes this opportunity, being alone with his disciples, to teach them about spiritual food and drink.

Jesus makes an analogy between physical food and drink, and spiritual food and drink.  Physical food and drink are transformed into spiritual food and drink.   This is the transformation that happens in the Eucharist . . .

Just as Jesus changed the water into wine at the wedding in Cana, the Holy Spirit transforms the wine into the blood of Christ in the Eucharist – and the bread is transformed into the body of Christ.

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Jesus was offering himself to the Samaritan woman at the well when he offered her living water . . . and Jesus offers himself to each of us at the Eucharistic table.

You know the saying – “You are what you eat”?? . . . When we eat the spiritual body and blood of Jesus Christ at the Eucharist, we are being transformed into Christ himself. . .

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So come to the table – we are all invited . . .

Let us pray . . .

Be present, be present, O Jesus, our great High Priest, as you were present with your disciples, and be known to us in the breaking of bread; who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

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To Be Who God Made Us To Be

adam-Jesus

First Sunday of Lent
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11
A sermon offered March 9, 2014
St. Nathaniel’s Episcopal Church, North Port, FL

For many of us, Lent began here last Wednesday with a sooty cross on our forehead – we knelt or stood before the altar for the Ash Wednesday reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. This is not meant to be depressing – or frightening – it simply reminds us who we are: human beings … mortals … made by God, in some sense made in his image. But Ash Wednesday definitely reminds us that we are not God…

Wednesday’s dust was a way of taking us back to our beginnings: a little pile of dust in the garden of Eden. God breathed life into that dust and man became a living being. And this sets the stage for the first reading this morning from Genesis. In the garden Adam, was “every man,” and Eve, was “every woman,” They walked along the paths of the garden – totally happy – totally satisfied. And they might have stayed in that paradise forever — but before they totally figured out what it means to be human, their curiosity got the best of them.

God had warned them that they would die if they ate the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden. But you know how the story goes. The evil one tempted Eve: “Of course you won’t die! God knows very well that the moment you eat that fruit your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil.” Now, how much better can it get than that — to be as powerful as God … as wise as God?! The temptation was too much to resist! And Adam and Eve decided to trust their own logic and their desire for power over God’s command.

God watched that temptation happen, he allowed that test to happen – and Adam and Eve failed the test. They didn’t die immediately, but the pronouncement was made: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

We have inherited their fate along with their curiosity and their vulnerability. Sometimes temptation is too much to resist.

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But Adam and Eve are not our only ancestors. Jesus has also claimed us as his kin, his family – sons and daughters by adoption. And we hear his story today as well in the Gospel reading . . .

The Gospel of Matthew offers us an insiders view. Jesus has emerged from the waters of baptism and the very voice of God has said “This is my Son . . .“

Then the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness – forty days, six weeks in the desert, praying and fasting and listening to the Spirit. For forty days Jesus was formed and prepped to set out on God’s mission of reconciliation and healing . . . mercy and forgiveness.

And then, after the forty days came the test. Like Adam and Eve, Jesus was tempted by the evil one, not just once but three times. Jesus was tempted to call on his divine powers to overcome his human vulnerability, his human hunger and his human dependency. The line was drawn in this story as surely as it was for Adam and Eve. Jesus could choose to play God and escape the price of humanity — or he could remain human. Three times he was tempted and three times he said no. He refused to cross over the line God had drawn – he passed the test. For the time being, the devil was defeated.

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So we can begin to see how the core temptation of these two stories is the same: it’s a matter of identity – relational identity. The same temptation faces us, you and me. Will we embrace our true identity as human beings, mortals . . . made by and for God and not self-made? Will we be ourselves . . . our true selves? Or will we overstep our human bounds?

The two scripture stories tell a tale of two choices.
Adam and Eve, for their part, refused to be who they were: humans and not gods. Their falsehood could only lead to chaos and struggle . . . unhappiness . . . and alienation from their authentic selves.
Jesus, on the other hand, resisted the temptation to act solely out of his divine identity and so deny his humanity. He accepted the poverty of his humanity, accepted his human identity.
Jesus was sent to be the human face of God. He came to bridge the human and divine so that we can experience – and in some way understand God’s way of loving us, God’s way of saving us . . . saving us in our humanity!
Because Jesus was human, he had to grow into the understanding of his true self just as we do. That’s part of what was happening in the wilderness for those forty days. And then when he was tempted, Jesus was obedient to the core of his true self, his identity as fully human as well as fully God. By claiming his humanity, he actually released the power of God to live out his mission.

The Good News is this: While Jesus will suffer human rejection, misunderstanding, and ultimately death – at the same time he also holds the victory of life over death, truth over falsehood, and hope over despair.

Today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, pulls these two stories together and points to the choices we must make – the temptations that threaten our staying in right relationship with God. Paul writes: “Brothers and sisters: sin came into the world through one man . . . and death came through sin . . . and so death spread to all because all have sinned.”

He continues: “If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”

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Both Adam and Jesus are alive and well in us. We can feel the internal tug of war most every day of our lives. But if Adam’s story is our story, Jesus’ story is ours as well. When the Adam in us is tempted to play God, the Jesus in us is more powerful to able to resist the temptation and remain true to the search for our human identity.

Embracing this search is the most important thing we can do. And when with God’s grace, we find the courage and honesty to stay with the search, we will know that great gift of being at home in our own skins, of being at peace. This is the secret of living in faithful relationship with God and with ourselves – This is also the source of the energy we need to share in Jesus’ mission in the world.
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This is our Lenten call:
— to live the life we have been given with integrity,
— to be we who are made to be . . . and
— to live fully into our human lives
— as the God who made us from the dust of the earth offers to breathe new life into us again and again.

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