Saturday, June 28, 2008

7 Pentecost

June 29, 2008
Golden Ridge Lutheran Church, Fargo
Gardner Congregational-Lutheran United Church, Gardner, ND

Jeremiah 28.5-9; Matthew 10. 40-42

“Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s award,” Jesus tells us this morning in our Gospel reading.

What a strange comment, most of us no doubt think. As we ponder these words of Jesus, we might find ourselves wondering if we would even be able to recognize a prophet much less welcome one. Prophets seem to us like strange beings we found in the Old Testament—wild men, with wild beards and wild talk—but certainly we don’t have prophets now in our day and age. And even if we did, would we even believe anything they say? If someone stands up among us and says, “God is speaking to me. And God says, the sky will fall on us this afternoon,” we would sigh and shrug our shoulders and say, “what a crazy idiot!”

But, still, we find prophets in the Scriptures every time we open the Bible. So, what is a prophet? It’s an important question to ask because to receive a prophet’s reward, we should know what a prophet is. The simple, somewhat “official,” answer to the question is this: The prophet is a “divinely inspired preacher.” [1] OK. That’s nice. But, it doesn’t really answer the question. After all, I hope all preachers who stand up and preach here in church are at least a little bit “divinely inspired.”

The fact is, most of us, when we think of a prophet, no doubt think of them as some sort soothsayer or a fortune teller. When we think of a prophet we think of people who can see into the future and tell us what is going to happen. And sometimes, they do. Sometimes, God grants them visions of what is going to happen.

But the prophet is not a fortune teller or a soothsayer. Being a prophet is more like seeing things the rest of us can’t. They have intuition, granted to them by God, and they are able to see what the rest of us can’t, because God has allowed them to see it for the good of the rest of us. The Hebrew word for prophet actually means “one who is inspired by God.” [2] They are humans, like us, who have been touched in a special way by God. God works in the prophet and through the prophet. The prophet becomes the conduit through which God works for us. The prophet is the messenger. The Words of the prophet, when inspired by God, become the Word of God to us. They were people who had a special relationship with God and with whom God had a special relationship.

Karen Armstrong, in her A History of God, says that throughout history, “…the only people who worshipped God properly were prophets and philosophers. The prophet had direct knowledge of God, the philosopher had rational knowledge of [God].” [3]

The prophet had direct knowledge of God. Prophets like Moses saw God. They actually saw the glory of God. Prophets like Ezekiel, who, while in exile by the river Chebar, saw God sitting on a throne, with living creatures surrounding God. A prophet’s life, on the surface, at very first glance, seems wonderful. Why wouldn’t it? The prophet doesn’t have to deal with the same issues we do in our faith in God. They aren’t concerned with issues of doubt like we are. They can never, in their lives, ever wonder if God truly exists. Because they have seen God. They have heard God speaking to them. And, with the true prophet, they know without a doubt that God exists because when God speaks to them, what God says happens.

And that is the reason why the prophet’s life might not be so wonderful. When God speaks, what God says comes true. And often times, what God commands the prophet to say is sometimes a very difficult thing to have to share with others.

Throughout the Old Testament, as we encounter prophets, we find that they are not popular by any means. More often than not, they go about telling people to repent—to turn away from what they are doing in this life, and return to God—because—and there’s always a “because” with prophets—if you do not, horrible things are going to happen. The prophet says to the people: God told me that if you do not repent, the world you know now will be turned upside down.

For the Israelites walking about in the desert, when Moses told them not to grumble and complain—and they continued to do so—Moses told them, again and again, to return to God or they wouldn’t be allowed to enter the Promised Land. And that’s exactly what happened. That first generation of Israelites ended up dying in the wilderness, while their children were allowed to cross the Jordan into the Land of Milk and Honey.

Later, before the Fall of Jerusalem, before the great Exile, prophets like Isaiah went about telling the people to repent, or they would be sent off into Exile. And that’s exactly what happened.

As you can imagine, prophets, who live not only in this world, but also in the next, are not people you want to get too close to. They don’t make very good friends. Because they are sort of straddling the worlds—with one foot in our world and one foot in the next—we might find ourselves finding out things we don’t want to know about the future.

They us things we don’t want to hear sometimes because we like our complacency. We live living our normal, predictable lives. We like following our schedules. The prophet is the one who tells us that normal predictable lives are not going to last forever. When God works in our lives, our world gets shaken up.

For us as Christians, the prophets have even more meaning. Throughout the Old Testament, we read their prophecies from the perspective of our faith in Christ, knowing that what they were telling people then was, “repent, because God is returning to us in a way we might not expect.” And, in Jesus, we find God coming to us in flesh and blood.

Now, the fact is: we have been referring to prophets as “them” up to this point. We have the idea that prophets lived way back then—in those days before Jesus. But, prophets didn’t just stop existing when Jesus came. God didn’t stop talking to us through prophets when Jesus came on the scene. Yes, he was the fulfillment of their prophecies. Yes, he was what they saw coming when no one else could see.

But, now, with the prophecies fulfilled, with Jesus having come to us, we find the calling of prophet expanded. We find we have all been called to be prophets to some extent. We are being called, like those earlier prophets, to keep our hearts and minds open to God. By doing so, God will work in us and speak through us to others. As Christians, we are living in a time in which the prophecies of old have been fulfilled. And our job is to proclaim that fact.

As Christians, we have been allowed to glimpse, like prophets, the future. We know that we will all go through heartache and pain in this life. We will experience our share of exiles, of wandering about in the deserts of life, while we make our way through this life.

But, like the prophets, we are able to see ahead, beyond the exiles and the aimless wanderings of our lives. Like the prophets, we have been inspired by God. Like the prophets, we have been granted, through Jesus, an intuition that others don’t seem to have.

As Christians, we see life differently than others. When others despair or lose hope over natural disasters and death and destruction, we can see through those horrible things to the glory God in Jesus has promised us. We are able, through the words of God that come to us through Jesus, to see the glory that awaits us all. In the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, we have seen God and we have seen what God will do for us.

Our job as prophets, having seen these glimpses into what awaits us, is to live this knowledge out in our lives. Our job is prophesy this glorious future by living our Christian life fully and completely. Our vocation—our calling from God—as prophets is to love God and to love one another as we love ourselves, and by doing so, we get to show others a glimpse of the glory that awaits us. Our vocation as prophets to live out the words of Jeremiah that we heard in our Old Testament reading today:

We are called to prophesy peace, because when we do, our prophecy of peace will come true and when it does, “it will be known the Lord has truly sent” us. Our prophecies aren’t just prophecies of words. We are not being called, like Jonah, to walk from one edge of the city to the other proclaiming that the end is near. Rather we are being called as prophets to proclaim, by our actions and our words of love, that God loves us and, because God does, we must love each other and ourselves.

Much of the prophecies, in the Old Testament, were prophecies of doom. Our prophecy is a prophecy of love and joy and life that never ends. Our prophecy is that prophecy of peace that Jeremiah imagines as the fulfillment of all prophecies. And like the prophets who saw God face to face, we too will see God face to face.

Because God came into us in the flesh of Jesus, because God continues to come to us in the Holy Spirit that lives with us, we know that God is present in us.

This morning, as we gather here together, we carry within us, the holy Presence of God. And when we look at each and see each other, we are gazing into very Presence of God in our midst.

So, as we leave here today, let us take with us our prophetic knowledge and love. Let us prophesy our love of God and of each other in all that we do and say. And doing so, we will be the prophets of God. We will be the ones through whom God continues to speak to the world. And we will be the ones through whom God’s love will be shown to the world.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

6 Pentecost

June 22, 2008
Shepherd of the Prairie Moravian Church

Matthew 10.24-39

Sometimes, we as Christians, can fall into complacency. We sometimes get caught in ruts as Christians—we hear the same old words, speak the same old statements, profess the same old creeds and go through the same old motions of being a Christian. But sometimes we don’t pay much attention to the symbols that surround us Christians.

Namely, I am speaking of the most common symbol—the one that defines all of us as Christians. I am speaking, of course, about the Cross. Take a moment of think about the Cross. Look at how deceptively simple it is. It’s simply two pieces, bound together. For someone who knows nothing about Christianity, for someone who knows nothing about the story, it’s a symbol they might not think much about.

And yet the Cross is more than just another symbol in our lives. The Cross is what truly defines as Christians. Without it, we would be utterly lost. Without it, our faith as Christians would be essentially powerless. Our hope, our longing, for eternal life, for the destruction of death by Jesus, would never have been accomplished. Without it, we would still be digging in heels in fear over death.

So, yes, the Cross is essential to us as Christians. It is what gives our faith its very essence.

Most of have never even given a second though to how the Cross came to be. We no doubt think that it just simply was there when the Romans gave it to Jesus as he began his journey to Calvary. But there is a wonderful story about it, that I’d like to share with you.

This story can be found in a wonderful sermon by one of my all-time favorite early Christian thinkers, Anthony of Padua. Anthony was a priest of the Franciscan Order, the order founded Francis of Assisi. In his sermon, he spoke on how the Cross was present in scripture from the very beginning of Creation. Anthony of Padua based his sermon on some little known legends in Christian tradition.

According to this legend, the Cross originated not with Jesus’ death, but it can actually be traced much earlier—to, of all people, Adam, the first human. The story goes that when Adam became ill with his final sickness, his son Seth went looking our for medicine to heal him. As he approached the Garden of Eden, the place from which Adam and his wife Eve were earlier cats out, Seth saw the Angel who guarded the Gate to Eden. Seth begged the Angel to help him find medicine for his father. The Angel broke off a branch from the Tree of Life, from which Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit. As the Angel handed the branch to Seth, he said, “Your father will be healed when this branch bears fruit.” Seth returned only to find that Adam had died and was buried. Seth then buried the branch in Adam’s grave. The branch grew into a giant tree.

Later, Anthony tells, this same tree was seen by the Queen of Sheba in Solomon’s house of wood, which we find in I Kings 7.2. The Queen had a vision of the origin of the tree and of how it was one day on it a great man was going to die. She was unable to tell the King of her vision and instead wrote him a letter when she returned to her home, telling Solomon that she had seen in her vision a man hanging on the tree who would bring the downfall of Israel. Solomon, in fear, buried the tree in what would become the Bethesda Pool.

The tree grew so that, by the time of Jesus, the tree grew up over the water. It was this pool, that we find in John chapter 5. In John we find the pool called Bethesda surrounded by five colonnades. One of these colonnades was believed to be the Tree. In John we find that interesting story about the Angel who would come down to disturb the water of the Bethesda Pool. The first person to enter the water after the disturbance would be healed.

It was here, on the day that Jesus was going to be crucified, that the Romans looked for a tree on which to crucify him. And it was there that they found this tree. They cut it down and made it into the Cross, which Jesus carried to Golgotha. And Golgotha, as some people know, was believed to be the place where Adam and Eve were buried.

In some representations of the Crucifixion, you will often see a skull at the base of the Cross. That skull has always traditionally been believed to be the skull of Adam. So, the Cross had made a full circular journey back to where it began. The tree that grew out of the grave of Adam, again was set into place on the grave of Adam and, finally, then and there, it bore its fruit. It bore Jesus. And the prophecy of the Angel of Eden was fulfilled. Finally the tree bore fruit. And when it did, Adam was restored. When that tree bore fruit, we found our new Adam—Jesus. Now, the story is good for us if for no other reason in that it helps us to look at the Cross as a very major part of our salvation.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us, “anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” These are words we do not want to hear from Jesus. Taking up our Cross is frightening after all. The Cross, as much as it defines, as much as it is symbol of our faith, it is also an instrument of torture and death. To take up a cross means to take up a burden that we must bear, even though we don’t really want it. To take it up is torturous. It hurts. When we think of that last journey Jesus took to the place of Adam’s skull, carrying that heavy tree on which he is going to be murdered, it must’ve been more horrible than we can even begin to imagine. And, without the resurrection, it would have been.

But the fact is, what Jesus is saying to us is: carry your cross now. Carry it with dignity and inner strength. Because if you carry cross, then you are truly following Me. By carrying our cross, we are following Jesus to the place he leads. That place, is of course, the joy of Resurrection and Life. But the road leads first through the place of the skull.

To face this reality, we find ourselves facing fear. We sometimes allow ourselves to slip deeply into fear and despair in our lives. As we all know, fear can be crippling. It can devastate us and drive us to despair. But if we listen to what Jesus is saying to us in this morning’s Gospel, we find our way through the fear.

Twice in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus commands us, “Do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid.”

Do not be afraid of what the world can throw at you. Do not be afraid of what can be done to the body and the flesh. Taking our cross and bearing it bravely is a sure and certain way of not fearing. If we take the crosses we’ve been given to bear and embrace them, rather than running away from them, we find that fear has no control over us. The Cross destroys fear. The Cross shatters fear into a million pieces. And when we do fear, we know we have a place to go to for shelter. When fear encroaches on our lives—when fear comes riding roughshod through our lives—all we have to do is go to the Cross and embrace it. And there, we will find our fears destroyed. As Anthony of Padua said: "Extending his arms on the cross like wings, Christ embraces all who come to him sheltering then in his wounds.”

Because of the Cross, we are taken care of. Because of the Cross, all will be well. The Cross Jesus asks us to bear is not a frightening and terrible thing. It was, at one time.
It was a symbol of defeat and death and pain and torture.It was, for the people of Jesus’s day, what the electric chair or the hangman’s noose or even the lethal injection table is to us this day. It was, for the people of Jesus’s day, a symbol of ultimate defeat. On it, hung criminals. On it, hung those who, by society’s standards, deserved to hang there. On it hung the blasphemer, the heretic, the agitator.

But now, for us, it is a symbol of strength and joy and unending eternal life. Through it, we know, we must pass to find true and unending life. Through the Cross, we must pass to find ourselves, once and for all time, face-to-face with God.

So, I invite you: take notice of the crosses around you. As you drive along, notice the crosses on the churches you pass. Notice the crosses that surround you. When you see the Cross, remember what it means to you. Look to it for what it is: a symbol of terror and death, but also a symbol of the power of God to overcome terror and death. Look at the Cross and, when you see it, see it for what it truly is: a triumph over every single fear in our lives.

When you see the crosses in your life, look at it and realize it is destroying the fear in your own life. And more importantly, bear those crosses of your life patiently and without fear. If you do, you too will be following the way of Jesus and that Way doesn’t end at the Cross. Rather the Way of Jesus—that Way of Life unending, Life Everlasting,--really and truly begins at the Cross.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

5 Pentecost

June 15, 2008
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church

John 9.35-10.23

I always love to ask the question: what do you think of when you think of heaven? I usually get some of the most interesting answers.

When I ask Sunday school students, they often talk about a heaven in which they get to have all their wishes come true. Or they get to meet their dead goldfish. The older students talk about heaven as being a place in which they can play video games all day long—in which they actually get to be a part of the video game. Another student talked about a princess heaven—in which she gets to be a princess for all eternity.

Adults have similar views of heaven. Most of us were raised with those images of fluffy clouds, of floating around in some blessed sky somewhere, strumming harps. We have often been told of our own “personal” heavens—we hear people talk about: in MY heaven, it will be like this or that. In MY heaven, it will like the happiest day of my life. In MY heaven, there will only be the people I loved in this life.

This kind of thinking has played heavily into popular culture. One of the most popular books in the last few years is a novel called The Lovely Bones by Ann Seebold. In fact, it is so popular it is currently being made into a film that is being released next year. The story, which takes place in 1973, is told from the perspective of a 14-year-old girl named Susie Salmon who is brutally murdered at the beginning of the book and goes on to narrate the rest of the book from her own personalized heaven.

From her own heaven, she can see the crime scene, the place where her body was hidden. The girl can see her parents and family mourning over her and she can see what her killer does. For her, heaven is sort of like here, except it’s everything she wants there. What’s interesting about all of these popular views of heaven is what is missing from them.

One very important thing is missing—and that is, of course, God. No where in Seebold’s novel is God even mentioned. For the author Seebold, who was raised an Episcopalian and is currently non-religious, she defended her “God-free” heaven:

“To me, the idea of heaven would give you certain pleasures, certain joys - but it's very important to have an intellectual understanding of why you want those things. It's also about discovery, and being able to come to the conclusions that elude you in life. So it's from the most simplistic things - Susie wants a duplex - to larger things, like being able to understand why her mother was always slightly distant from her.”

It’s an interesting take on heaven. And no doubt many of us have similar views of heaven. We imagine it will be a place in which we can sit around with our loved (and without those we don’t like or care for), doing what we do best. Every so often, as I plan funerals with family members, I try to discourage them for giving eulogies at funerals because, more often than not, someone will get up and say something like: “I sure hope when Joe and I are together in heaven, we’ll crack open a beer, light up a cigarette and watch the game on TV.”

The fact is, none of these images of heaven are consistent with what scripture tells us about heaven. Now to be fair, scripture is evasive at best when referring to heaven. And it is hard to find a consistency in views of heaven. Even in our Gospel reading for today, we find an image of heaven that might seem, at first glance, a bit puzzling.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the apostles to preach this message: “the kingdom of heaven is near.” No doubt we frown when we first hear those words. I would bet the disciples certainly did. Like them, we can easily look around at the world around us and fail to see the kingdom of heaven drawing near. After all, we are surrounded by news of war. We have been hearing about violent crimes—random acts of violence right in our community—and we see a world that is, at times, unfair and frustrating. We look about and, like Jesus, we see the “harassed and helpless” in our midst. We might even see the harassed and helpless staring back at us from our mirrors. In all of this, it is hard to see the Kingdom of Heaven being close at all.

But if we listen closely to what Jesus commands the apostles to do, we find a see-sawing motion. He tells them to heal the sick. Raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. We find Jesus telling the apostles to make negative things positive. There are sick people; heal them. When you do that the kingdom of heaven draws near.
People have died; raise them. If you do it, the kingdom of heaven is near. People are suffering with leprosy; cleanse them. If you do, heaven will be in our midst. Demons have come among us; drive them out. If you do, heaven will be there.

For us, these images of demons and leprosy don’t mean so much to us anymore in this modern time. But we can easily replace these images with others. For us, the message is just as clear. When people are sick, pray for them, visit them, comfort them. If you do, you will bring heaven to them. There are people who have died—not just died physically, but have died spiritually or emotionally. Go to them, pray for them, help them. In doing so, you will help them to find life and by helping them find life, they will know what heaven is. If people are suffering from an uncleanliness instilled on them by society, go to them. Touch them. Show them love. In doing so, they will be cleansed and, in their cleansing, they will know heaven. When evil in whatever form comes to you and makes life difficult, don’t succumb to it yourself. Chose good over evil. Choose the light over darkness. And if you do, heaven will be with you. The Kingdom of Heaven will break through. And when it does, we will see it.

These are the real glimpses of heaven we get in this life. And probably the most striking aspect of this is the fact that heaven is not a personal thing. It isn’t about me, personally. It’s about us, as a whole. We can’t see this vision of heaven clearly. There are no details. There are no specifics.

All we know is that everything we hope for and hope in, everything we long for, every deep desire we have, everything good and positive, is fulfilled there. We know this, because Jesus tells us that this is so. There is something awaiting us. We can’t comprehend it. We can’t, in this moment, even begin to wrap our minds and spirits around it. But, as Jesus shows us in today’s Gospel, we can catch glimpses of it. And more importantly, we can be responsible in helping others catch glimpses of it.

We might not know for certain what heaven is like or what it will be like for us. The fact is, we don’t need to know now. If we simply believe and have faith that heaven is the place in which God dwells, the place to which Christ leads us and the place which Jesus commands us to preach as being near, that is enough. We simply need to trust in God that it will be more incredible, more spectacular, more stunning than anything we can possibly even begin to imagine. And we know that we have been given the power here to bring heaven close. We know, through the promises of Jesus, that something does in fact await us. We might not fully be able to comprehend it here and now. But we know, deep in our souls, that it is there.

I have always been fond of the statement by the French Jesuit and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who said, “We are not physical beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a physical experience.” This life—this existence—is only a part of the larger, greater experience of our lives. This life is only part of the path that brings us closer to God again and again. And while we are here—while we are making our way through this physical human experience—we are able to bring glimpses of the Kingdom of heaven and bring that kingdom closer, not only for us, but those with whom we are having this experience.

So, let these words of Jesus settle into your hearts: The kingdom of heaven is near. Take these words with you today and live them out in your lives. Bring the kingdom of heaven near to those you know in your life. Be the conduit through which the Kingdom of heaven is made known. And, if you do, you will find the Kingdom of haven drawing near to you in your own life.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Requiem Eucharist for Harriet Bassett Price

Harriet Bassett Price

(March 20, 1930 - June 3, 2008)
Friday June 13, 2008
Gethsemane Cathedral

John 14.1-6

Occasionally, in our lives, we make connections with people that simply amaze us. These connections happen on a level different than the one on which we’re used to living. They happen at a spiritual level. They happen deep within. These connections are hard to articulate. Whenever we examine them, they sort of wiggle away from us. Whenever we try to pin them down, they just sort of disappear.

I have no doubt that these connections are truly “grace moments” in our lives. “Grace moments” are those moments we don’t ask for—we don’t even really know how to ask for them—and we can’t make them happen on our own. They simply happen when God moves and God works. They happen on God’s time and in God’s own way.

It had one of these grace moments, one of these deep, spiritual connections, when I first met Harriet. And I, like most everyone here this morning, am grateful for the presence of Harriet Price in my life.

Over the last nine months, there hasn’t been a day that has gone by that I haven’t thought about Harriet. Every day, at least twice a day—at Morning and Evening Prayer—I have prayed for Harriet. And every day I thought about the dignity and the personal strength and faith she had when she was diagnosed last September.

The fact is, Harriet has taught all of us well. She has taught us to be strong in the face of overwhelming odds. She has taught us to have dignity and grace, even when life deals us something devastating. And more than anything else, she taught us that, in the face of all of this, that strength, that grace comes from a deep, sustaining faith.

Harriet’s faith is what held her up these last months. Her faith is what she held onto and it was her faith that made bearable what, under any other circumstances, would no doubt frighten the rest of us.

Not long ago, Harriet had went to her doctor to ask him what the end was going to be like. The doctor was honest with her. He told her that she would go on fairly normally for a period of time then slowly, she would gradually fail. It would be gradual descent. She would become bed ridden. She would get sicker and, eventually, she would fail.

That was not what Harriet wanted to hear. Harriet made it clear that day that this was not the way she wanted it to happen.

“Why can’t it’s just be quick?” she said. “Why can’t I go along normally and the, just…go?”

The doctor again was honest with her. He said, “Harriet, in twenty-five years of dealing with pancreatic cancer, I can say it never happens that way.”

Well, Harriet proved him wrong. As we know, they gave Harriet six months. She lived for nine. And, for the better part of those nine months, she did very well. She had very little pain medication. Her life was fairly normal for the better part of those nine months. And, in the end, it was just as she wanted it. She went quickly and painlessly. And she went with a strong sense that something more and greater was awaiting her.

Before Harriet went to sleep the night before she died, she said, “Let the kids know. Ed is coming to pick me up at 6:30.” And sure enough, her husband Ed did just that. The next morning, at 6:00, Harriet died.

When I talked with the family the other day to plan this service and they told me this story, we also talked about the lesson it teaches us. The lesson Harriet teaches us is that death is not something to fear. And Harriet did not fear death.

A Christian knows better than to fear death or anything else Christians have no right to despair. We have no right to fear anything. And this is probably the greatest lesson Harriet can teach us.

When I look back, nine months ago, to when Harriet was diagnosed, I realized that, as difficult as that time was—we had just had the memorial service for Harriet’s brother Clarke a few weeks before—still, even in that sad moment, her spiritual strength could still be maintained. The day nine months ago today, on September 13, when she was diagnosed, Harriet, her son Lysle, her sister Sue and I celebrated Holy Communion together. Afterward, we talked about fear. She made it very clear to me that day that she didn’t fear death. The diagnosis was difficult. It was inconvenient. It was something she didn’t want to deal with. But there was no fear in her that day. Because of her faith, she knew where she was going. And she spent those nine months of her life without fear.

Every so often, I like to ask this question of people: “What is the most commonly repeated commandment in the Bible?” Now we no doubt instantly think of the Ten Commandment. We think of all those “Thou shalt nots.” We think of all the rules and obligations we find in the Bible. But the most commonly repeated commandment in scripture is none of these. The actual most repeated commandment in scriptures is the best one.

It is: “Do not fear.”

Over and over again in the Gospels, we find Jesus saying to the people he encountered, “Do not fear.” This is a commandment that Harriet lived out fully in her life. She did not fear. She knew that it is unbecoming of a good Episcopalian Christian to fear anything. Fear, after all, shows lack of faith in the God who gives us all we need. Fear shows that we do not have real faith. Fear not, we hear in the scriptures and in the life of Harriet Price. And as Harriet would no doubt say: “Why fear? What is there to fear?’

In today’s Gospel we find Jesus giving us just a glimpse of the place that is prepared for us in the next world. He says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwellings.” Immediately after giving this vision of what awaits us, we find Thomas saying, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Those are words, essentially, of fear. Thomas is afraid. He has no clue what has happened and he has no clue what is about to happen.

But Jesus sets all fear to rest with those beautiful and deceptively simple words, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” We have heard those words so often over the years that we might not even pay at attention to them anymore. But those words of Jesus effectively destroy any fear we might have.

When Jesus says he is the Way, the Truth and the Life, he is saying this: Why fear about where you are going? If you look to me, you will find the Way to go. Why fear about what is true or not? I am Truth. Why worry about death? I am Life. Jesus says to us, If you look to me, if you trust in me, if you keep your eyes and your heart on me, there is no room for fear. I will take care of you. And you will be taken care of.

Harriet believed in these words. Harriet held these words firmly to herself and found in these words the source of her faith and strength. And because she believed in these words, she felt no fear over the future or of death. And this is what we can take away with us today.

This is the lesson Harriet is teaching all of us today. We must live our life much as Harriet lived hers—fearlessly. Without fear. We must live our lives strengthened and sustained by a deep and abiding faith in God. And if we take Harriet’s example to heart, if we, like her, heed the words of Jesus, if we look to him to take away our fear, we too will be with Harriet again. We will find our fears falling from us forever and we will find our lives—like Harriet’s—renewed without ending.

I am thankful for the life and teaching of Harriet Price. I am thankful that I got to know her and I am thankful that I was with her on that day she was diagnosed. I am thankful for the connection I made with her. I know that that connection hasn’t been severed. Our friendship hasn’t ended.

Just as I prayed for her every day for these last nine months, I know that Harriet is in that placed that was prepared for her by her Father in heaven, that place her beloved Ed led her to, and that she is there right now praying for all of us from now on. And I have no doubt that when we close our eyes to this world, when we open them to the next, Harriet will be there with all of our loved ones, awaiting us and saying to us, in that way Harriet did, “do not fear. What is there to fear?” And there, together, we will have found the Way, we will have discovered the Truth and we will have gained the Life that will never end.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

4 Pentecost

June 8, 2008

Hosea 5.15-6.6; Matthew 9.9-13, 18-26

In today’s Gospel reading, we find Jesus doing several things he, as a good Jew, following the Law, should not be doing. He is not only talking with tax collectors, he is sitting down to eat with one. To truly understand what Matthew is getting at here, we have to understand how what Jesus did was viewed as unclean in his time.

First of all, we are told Jesus is not only speaking with a tax collector (and not only speaking, but calling him to be a follower), he enters the home of one and sits down at table and eats with him. A tax collector would have been unclean because, first of all, he handled Roman money. Roman money had on it images of the Roman emperor, who was considered a god. So, by Jewish Law, it was unclean because it was pagan. The tax collector would have been considered unclean because he handled these pagan coins, these pagan idols.

But he also would have been considered worse than that by most Jews. Because he handled the Roman money, he was also considered a traitor. He was, in a sense, working for Rome, the occupying force in the country. It would be similar (though not exactly) like a Norwegian working for the Nazis during the occupation. Because the tax collector was considered unclean, his house would have been unclean and especially the food he served would have been unclean.

And to make matters worse, he wasn’t just eating with a tax collector. He was eating with other sinners. Although the Gospel doesn’t tell us what these other sinners were guilty of, they no doubt were guilty of something bad to be considered sinners.

So, for Jesus to enter his house, to eat food served to him in that house, would have been a major faux pas. Religiously, socially, Jesus did everything he wasn’t supposed to do. He was, in a sense, swimming against the social and religious current of his day.

But Jesus, in the face of glaring social and religious criticism, does an incredible thing. He quotes Hosea. He says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” What a beautiful statement!

And it’s an even more beautiful statement because it’s really an echo of what we want to hear from our God. This is what we want to hear from God. Mercy is what we want from God. And mercy is something people seemed to seek from Jesus.

In the Gospels, we find people constantly coming to Jesus, asking for mercy. We find, in today’s reading, a leader of the synagogue coming to him, seeking mercy. We find the woman, suffering from a hemorrhage for twelve years, coming to him, seeking mercy. And in both cases, mercy is what they received. We don’t hear anything in these stories about whether or not they deserved this mercy. Nor do we hear anything about what happened to them after this mercy was granted to them. But I have no doubt, that in each case, their lives were transformed. They were not the same people they were before the mercy of Jesus came to them.

And that is what mercy does. It changes us. It makes us different than who we were before.

I have been reading a book recently called Surprised by Hope by the eminent Anglican theologian and Bishop of Durham, England, N.T. Wright. The book is truly a fascinating one. I say fascinating, but I mean challenging. It’s not a book I simply can read in one sitting, nor is it a book I can read straight through from beginning to end. It’s a book in which I am able to read only a few chapters at a time before setting it aside. After a few weeks go by, I pick it up again and read a few more chapters.

I have found myself challenged in that, at moments, I disagree with Bishop Wright, while at other moments I agree wholeheartedly with him. To give you a clue of what I mean, the subtitle of the book is: Rethinking heaven, the resurrection and the Mission of the Church. Certainly the book has challenged my entire view of what awaits us after we die. One of the more fascinating sections in the book is when Wright confronts the notion of purgatory. Wright systematically disassembles the notion of a purgatory that awaits us following our death.

In that section on Purgatory, Wright shares a view by Cardinal Josef Ratzinger. Cardinal Ratzinger is now much better known as Pope Benedict XVI. Wright references a view Ratzinger has regarding I Corinthians chapter 3, when Paul writes,

“Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.”

The fire here, according to Ratzinger, is in fact, Jesus himself. Jesus is the fire of judgment. Jesus is the fire that burns away the wood, the hay, the straw of our sins. He burns away everything that is dry and lifeless. And, in this fire, he purifies us. This fire is truly the fire of mercy.

Throughout the Gospels, we find people coming to Jesus asking for mercy. Even we, in the church, do it. Probably one of the most famous prayers is the so-called “Jesus prayer,” which is simply an ancient prayer from the Eastern Orthodox Church.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

In all of this, we find mercy to be an essential part of our relationship with Christ. Jesus really is the mercy of God. Everything about Jesus—the fact that in Jesus we find that God has come among us as one of us, has lived like us and has died like we will die, and, in doing so, has done away with our greatest fear—death—all this only goes to show how truly Jesus is the mercy of God.

So, when we hear that God desires “mercy, not sacrifice” that is no small statement. God truly does desire mercy. And because God desires mercy, we find mercy. We find mercy fully and completely in the person of Jesus.

In Jesus, we find mercy with a Face, with a Voice. In Jesus, we find true mercy—a mercy that comes to us as a burning all-consuming Fire. In Jesus, we find true mercy in the purified people we become after that consuming fire has burned away all that needed to be burned away in our lives.

So, let us, like God, desire mercy and not sacrifice. Let us look to Jesus for mercy. Let us pray to him:

Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.

And let us feel that mercy overtake us with an all-consuming fire.

3 Pentecost

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