DECEMBER SERMONS December 31, 2017 The Rev. Dr. Barbara Elliott
Happy New Year’s Eve! Besides any New Year’s resolutions, do you have a bucket list? What is on your bucket list? Simeon, who is in today’s Gospel reading, had a bucket list—he wanted to see the Messiah before he died. On the day that Mary and Joseph brought baby Jesus to the Temple, to meet the Jewish law that they present their son to God, Simeon and Anna were at the Temple. This was no ordinary encounter! Simeon recognized that Jesus—the infant—was the Messiah. This is amazing: we also know from the reading that Simeon was blind in his old age. So, if Simeon was blind—how is it that he ‘sees’ this infant to know Jesus is special? This makes no sense, Simeon’s experience seems to be a mystery—and it suggests that there is another way of seeing, another way of knowing. Thinking about it, there are times when we are like Simeon, when we perceive more than our senses can really know: we feel the presence of what is not there; we hear words that are unspoken, and know the meaning of the words between what is said; we taste what we have not put in our mouth; and there are times when we smell the flowers that are not there… Each of these experiences are times when we are like Simeon and know things that we cannot see. Think about a time when this happened to you—likely it was when you were so absorbed in what was happening that you lost track of time. When this happens, it is as if we are living outside of ourselves, independent of time. In those moments we experience that nothing is lacking: everything is complete, perfect, just right. When this happened that day in the Temple, Simeon and Anna were changed. Simeon knew that his deepest wish was being granted, and he celebrated meeting Jesus in a song to God. His words are part of the reading today, and obviously amazed Mary and Joseph—those words are still part of our worship. We sing these words several times each year, and will sing them at today’s offering too: "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." Back to our experiences: have you developed something that marks your experiences like this one, these times of mystery? Perhaps with a story or music or picture? Or maybe just a private, special feeling. These experiences can happen anytime. Maybe you had one of these sacred experiences over this holiday—or can recall one that happened when you were falling in love, or involved in a ritual, or playing hockey or skiing. When we have these moments, we are experiencing sacred presentations like the one Simeon and Anna experienced in the Temple that day, moments of mystery. And we come away from those experiences knowing we are changed, with new insights and possibilities. Our calendars change from 2017 to 2018 tonight. What are your resolutions for this year? And what is on your Bucket List now? Staying open to the sacred experiences that God will offer us through this coming year will allow us to encounter the mystery and celebrate the presence of Christ in our lives. AMEN December 25, 2017 Christmas Morning The Rev. Dr. Barbara Elliott
Merry Christmas!! What wonderful readings we have this morning…all celebrating God’s love for creation and for us.
These readings are poetic and mystical. They float, helping us imagine the beginning of creation, and how God has moved with intention from darkness to light and joy and hope in the world! That intention brought the birth of baby Jesus, when God lived among us. That mystery takes some time to soak in. Luke says how this happened, but John says why…With the birth of baby Jesus, God’s grace and truth have come to the world.
These are the darkest days of the year. We all have been living with lessening sunlight since last June, knowing that the light would come as we reached solstice and Christmas. Our Advent reflections have supported us in this darkness, anticipating the coming of the light. Advent invited us to really reflect and choose what we need as we leave the darkness behind, making room for the coming, growing light. Through this Advent time, what have you recognized as your deepest desire for this coming year?
Today is Christmas—there is Good News! Today the light has arrived! Yes, it is in its infancy: it is now a small, but also a vigorous and growing light energy, born as a gift to us.
How can the birth of the light as a baby make a difference? How is that possible. That is the mystery: how can we even try to imagine it? One way is to recall the times when a new baby was added to your extended family—how that small person somehow changed everything. And yet, also changed nothing at the same time. That is in fact what Jesus did for Mary, his family, and the world around him. Then, as now, babies are born into complicated and broken lives, into settings of great injustice and violence, of fear, and of living with serious illnesses and even deaths. Into times of darkness and struggle.
And yet, when a baby is born… Yes, our own life experiences also tell us the extent to which the birth of a baby does indeed change everything. Babies change our future by changing and by bringing new opportunities.
Our faith story and our Christian calendar starts again each year with Advent and Christmas: it begins with a baby born into our lives. This story is built on an experience we understand at a very personal level: a baby is born, and lives are thoroughly changed. Forever.
Think about that for a minute. What did a baby bring into your life? It is through the birth of a baby that we immediately learn the meaning of LOVE as we never experienced love before. The story of Jesus’ birth connects us with that—the LOVE Jesus brings is real, and personal, too. We are taught immediately how expansive the words “Love one another” really are.
Back to your Advent stirrings and your deepest desire—what is it for you this year? With the Christ child’s love and energy come changing opportunities to grow into that future. It takes courage to walk towards change and transformation. How will you reach for the Christ child’s and God’s love to help you move forward and capture these new opportunities?
God is faithful…God of long ago continues to speak to us on Christmas morning through the story of Jesus’ birth, a birth into a simple family in a faraway time and place. And that story continues to connect with us, and bring God’s light to us, to all people, and to all creation. The Christ Child’s birth offers us God’s love anew. May the gift of God’s love enter our hearts, fill our broken and empty and tired places, and open our gifts to grow into the future. Our strength is this true light, which has come again into the world! Thanks be to God! AMEN
December 24, 2017 Christmas Eve The Rev. Bill Van Oss
Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine; Love was born at Christmas: star and angels gave the sign.
A few weeks ago, I was downstairs in the kitchen here at church. It was a Wednesday Church Night and I was waiting in line for one of Buffy’s wonderful meals chatting with folks when all at once little Sara came running into the kitchen. She looked around and came right over to me. I could tell she was very excited to tell me something, she could hardly stand still. “What is it, Sara?” I asked, and she blurted out, “Jesus came! Jesus Came! He finally came!” and she ran off.
Now, as glad as I was to hear this news, I was a bit puzzled by it, so I got my food and went into the parish hall where I noticed Sara’s mother smiling broadly. “Jesus came?” I asked her, and she explained that when they had taken their ceramic nativity scene out of the attic Sara was carefully putting all the figures in place, but Jesus got dropped and it shattered into a thousand pieces. Sara was devastated, but thanks to Amazon Jesus had just arrived that day. Jesus came in a big, brown truck delivered right to their doorstep.
Jesus came. Jesus came. He finally came. Jesus came a long time ago on a dark and silent, holy night heralded by angels, visited by shepherds, surrounded by cow and donkey and sheep. Watched over by Mary and Joseph, tenderly laid in a manger, Jesus came a long time ago in Bethlehem. And He comes today. He came to Sara’s house in a big, brown truck and Jesus comes in many, many other ways.
He comes in our worship, in music and prayers, scripture, bread and wine, and the fellowship of believers. Jesus comes in a myriad of ways, in our world today. He comes to our homes, He’s at the table when we share a meal together, when we have time for each other.
Jesus comes. He comes at the hospital through a nurse’s care, a chaplain’s prayer, the skilled hands of a surgeon. Jesus comes. Jesus comes in a hot meal at the Union Gospel Mission and the Damiano Center, in a safe bed at Steve O’Neil apartments and at Lifehouse. Jesus comes.
Jesus comes at 12-step meetings and in words of forgiveness when someone has been hurt. Jesus comes in a ride for an elderly neighbor and through an employer who takes a chance to hire someone with a criminal record. Jesus comes in a teacher or a coach supporting, challenging, caring.
Jesus comes in a sanctuary room at a local church where a family threatened with deportation can be safe. Jesus comes through a mother who rocks her sick child all night and in a teenage who defends a friend from a bully.
Jesus comes in voices that shatter the silence of harassment and abuse and voices that challenges casual dismissals of serious offenses. Jesus comes over and over in a whole host of ways in our world today, not just long ago in far off Bethlehem. He is born into our world today because God is love and that love took flesh in Jesus. When we believe in Him and follow in His way of compassion and mercy, forgiveness, peace and love then He takes flesh in us.
Jesus lives in us and He works through our hands and hearts and feet and voices. He lives through us who believe in Him and follow in His Ways. Jesus came a long time ago through Mary in Bethlehem. Jesus came to Sara’s house in a big brown truck and Jesus comes into our world tonight though us, through hope, peace, joy, and love coming through us.
Love was born that first Christmas and it is born again tonight. Amen.
December 24, 2017 The Rev. Dr. Barbara Elliott When was the last time you took risks and stretched to pursue an unexpected opportunity? How did you respond? How did you feel about it? We lit the fourth Advent candle this morning; today we light the Love Candle. Love: the last of the gifts of life and faith that the Christ Child brings on Christmas Day. Previously, the candles invited us to welcome Hope, Peace, and Joy. Advent invites us each, to use the seasonal darkness as a place to really think about our deep hopes for the future. In Advent we prepare to welcome and use the gift of the Christ Child that we need the most into this coming year. In our Gospel reading today Mary learns that she is with child. God’s child. She was stunned with this unexpected news. She was afraid and needed to ask questions. As we read, Mary reminded the angel Gabriel, that it was really not possible—that she was not an exceptional person—only an ordinary young woman—and a virgin. Gabriel says, “Nothing is impossible with God.” After processing Gabriel’s comments, Mary makes an amazing response. She says, “Let it be with me according to your word.” Let it be… Mary’s questions and conversation when learning about her pregnancy showed both her fears and her deep faith. They revealed that she believed that God has great things in store for every one of us, even her. Mary knew that God’s love was real and would bring grace and blessings—albeit, into a world of hurt, suffering and injustice. Her experience with Gabriel and her response are examples of what can happen for each of us as ordinary people, knowing God’s blessings bring us opportunities and grace, too. Today, this morning, is the last of our Advent services anticipating the coming of Christ and the promise of returning light this year.. Think back through time about how unexpected opportunities have been part of your life. What has your life experience brought you so far? How have you responded when unexpected opportunities appeared? And where are you now: what is your deepest desire now? As these days unfold, are you ready to say “Let it be” when an invitation from God puts itself in front of you that can help you, moving toward that desire? Mary did. Wow. What courage she had—and what faith. Moving toward life-transformation, even when we know it is grounded on our faith, is risky too. She showed us how to do it. As we visit these possibilities, we encounter our own darkness—where is there darkness in your life now? We know our own darkness—sometimes it becomes so familiar that it becomes comfortable, and can keep us from stepping forward. On the other hand, pause to see where are there glimmers of light in your world—light that can grow and transform your darkness into the future? Where do you see it? Faith sustains us as we move forward toward a glimmer of light. May our Advent stillness this morning help us know God’s love. As Mary did, may we… Be still to listen. Be brave to hear. Be centered to behold a love too immense for our understanding. The Christ is coming… AMEN December 17, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss The Almighty has done great things for me and holy, holy is His Name
Listen to the words of Isaiah: The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.
Listen to the words of Hannah and Mary of Nazareth: Hannah: The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble put on strength. Mary: Strong is the arm of the Lord, who has scattered the proud in their hearts. Hannah: Those who were full are hungry, and those who were hungry are filled. Mary: God has put down the mighty and lifted those of low degree.
Listen to John the Baptist: I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.
Voices of prophets in today’s scripture readings.Prophets are God’s voice speaking sometimes challenging words into the wilderness that is our world.Prophets have the courage to stand up to the powers of this world, they point out the sometimes horribly crooked paths we take.They are willing to risk ridicule, risk even violence, to cry out against injustice and oppression.Prophets are God’s voice crying out in the wilderness of our world.
After hearing these scripture readings, these prophetic voices, in our Bible study group last week someone asked, are there prophets in the world today?The question caused us all to think for a moment and then my mind went to the recent cover of Time magazine showing six women dressed in black. Time’s Person of the Year, the Silence Breakers; women speaking out against abuse and harassment standing up to powerful men who feel they can abuse, objectify and demean them.
The mighty have been cast down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up as these women have spoken out.Prophets standing up to the powers of this world, pointing out the horribly crooked path of abuse and harassment, challenging all of us men to stand with them.No more acceptance of “locker room talk”, no more degrading, sexist, demeaning jokes.For all are God’s beloved children and must be treated as such.
Are there prophets in the world today?Oh, yes!The teenager who defends a classmate from a bully, standing against the notion that the strong can pick on the weak.That teenager is a prophet.People who steadfastly proclaim that housing and healthcare and having enough to eat are basic human rights because we are all beloved children of God.They are prophets in our world today.
Scientists who show us how our use of fossil fuels and other natural resources are harming the earth, and people working to protect our precious waters are voices crying out in the wilderness.
Are there prophets in the world today? Oh, Yes!They stand in a long line of prophets like Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi who spoke out against racism, discrimination, violence and war.People like Harriet Beecher Stowe who spoke out against slavery, and Mother Theresa who challenged systems that keep so many in abject poverty, Nelson Mandela who never lost his voice speaking out against apartheid, even during twenty-seven years in prison.
Prophets of old and prophets today point to the way of following Jesus; challenging the world as it is, challenging the powers that be.Lifting-up a vision of the world as God wants it where the dignity of every person is recognized, where all are treated as God’s beloved children, where peace and justice reign. On this third Sunday of Advent, may prophets like Isaiah and Hannah, and Mary of Nazareth, and John the Baptist, and prophets today inspire us to be God’s voice crying out in the wilderness.Amen.
December 3, 2017 The Rev. Dr. Barbara Elliott What do you hope for? What parts of your life do you finding difficult to face today? What pieces of your life do you want God to restore, to heal, to make new?
As we lit the first Advent candle this morning, we observed that this Sunday we light the Hope Candle, the first of the gifts of life and faith that the Christ Child brings on Christmas Day. Next week, the second candle invites us to welcome Peace, then comes the Joy Candle, and week four is the Candle of Love. It is up to us each, beginning now, to really think about what our deep hope is as we face the darkness and identify over these weeks how to prepare to welcome and use the gift we need the most this year.
In our Gospel reading today Jesus anticipates his coming again—just after he has described life in his times that no one wanted to acknowledge—the reality of violence, the certainty of death, the horrors of how people treated each other, and fears that we too have come to know. The experiences Jesus described are actually the very real darkness that still surrounds us today. In this passage, Jesus advises all of us—then and now— to Keep Alert as we can never know when Jesus will be with us.
Keep Alert?!? We certainly are aware of our 2017 experience of Jesus’ description: we are in the darkest time of the year (the time of the least sun), with the reality of human greed, rage, and misbehavior all around us. Our news is full of violence and efforts to dismantle protections for the most vulnerable among us. What is going on? How can staying awake help us when the work that is needed is far more than watchful waiting…
Advent is the time when we await the coming of Christ and promise of returning light. It is intriguing that our Christian Advent offers this time of anticipation and reflection, as do other religions this time of year. The Jewish calendar offers the miraculous story of Chanukah, with the unexpected light that came in the most dire of circumstances. In times past and native settings the same focus occurred. The Celtic calendar recognizes this phase of the year that anticipates solstice, as the time when we each should look deeply within ourselves to identify what personal transformation we want to develop as the light returns to the world.
The invitation to Keep Awake is Jesus’ challenge for us as we move into and through Advent. We are to Keep Awake so we encounter our own darkness—where is the heaviest darkness in your life now? Where are there glimmers of light—light that can grow and transform your darkness into the future? This is the Advent opportunity and question. In order to answer this question, we must spend time in reflection: sitting, listening, waiting, and watching. Noticing our areas of struggle and woundedness, our emotional blocks. Staying Awake in the darkness. With that we can perceive how the gift of the Christ Child can help us become who we can be.
We need to do this both in spite of, and because of, the dark times we know. In these busy weeks, finding a moment of stillness can allow us to Stay Awake and reflect on what we know the Christ Child can bring us. We are so fortunate here: we know that solitude is available in a brief walk by the lake, in a peaceful quiet place (if only for 5 or 10 minutes at the beginning and end of the day), or in watching the sunset.
Let us each Stay Awake during this season of darkness with the conviction that our Advent stillness will help us recognize the gift we need—the most powerful ray of light—to do God’s work in our Beloved Community.
Let us Pray: In the midst of darkness we wait for you, O God. You alone are our light and our hope. AMEN
November 26, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
If you’ve ever been in a train station in Europe you might have seen a little sign that says Mind the Gap. Mind the Gap between the platform and the train. Be careful you don’t trip or get your foot caught in that space; the space between here and there.
Dr. Robert Putnam is a Harvard professor of Public Policy who has studied and written extensively on the Opportunity Gap. What he calls the Opportunity Gap is the widening space between kids who are doing well in our country and kids who are struggling and falling behind. Our own Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation has received a grant to work on the gap, to work to help to close it and many of us have been a part of this community effort. Churches, schools, community service organizations, after-school programs, the YMCA, Community Action Duluth, mentoring programs, all seeking to reduce the number of kids falling through the cracks, falling into the gap.
In Dr. Putman’s book, Our Kinds: The American Dream in Crisis, he writes: “Our sense of ‘we’ has shriveled. Now when people talk about ‘our kids,’ they talk about their own biological kids, they don’t talk about all kids. This leads to a situation that’s bad for the economy, and bad for democracy.” (And I will add, bad for the kids.) He goes on, “But it’s just not right. We have an obligation to care for other people’s kids, too.”
That’s the point of today’s Gospel. Every kid is our kid, every troubled, struggling child is our responsibility, every injustice that leads to suffering is ours to do something about because every child is a child of God; every child is Christ. The goats of the Gospel, the people who didn’t taste the kingdom of God took care of themselves. People in need were “those people” who should either pull themselves up by their bootstraps or find someone else to help them. The sheep of the Gospel, the kingdom dwellers, saw people in need as their own sister and brother, as their kids, as Christ Himself.
In this striking and sobering scene, Jesus is reminding us that discipleship, following Him, requires seeing the world and seeing others as God sees them; as good, as created in God’s own image; then reaching out to close the gap between us, working to alleviate injustice, building relationships, tearing down stereotypes and prejudices and all the walls and gaps between us.
This is a wonderful day to baptize little Everett Thomas because baptism reminds us that we are all beloved children of God. We have a responsibility to take care of each other, that every child in this church is “our” kid. I will ask, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support Everett in his life in Christ?” Baptized into the church, the Body of Christ today, beloved member. There are no gaps in the Body of Christ, we are all connected to each other, different and unique, important and invaluable; beloved children of God.
In our baptismal covenant we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourself.” This promise affirms the presence of God, the presence of Christ, in each and every person we meet. When we do this, Christ the King, says to us, “Truly, I tell you when you cared for and loved one of the least of these who are members of my family, you cared for and loved me.
I pray that Everett always has enough food to eat, but even if he does, there are times he will be hungry. He will hunger for acceptance, he’ll hunger to know he matters, he’ll hunger for love. I pray he is always fed by his family, mom and dad, brother, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and fed by us, his church family because he’s our kid, our responsibility, as are all the kids here and all the kids out there.
Let us work to narrow and even eliminate the gaps between us so that all may know the life, the joy of the kingdom of God. Amen.
November 19, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
You are going to receive a piece of candy this morning because when I was a little boy one of my favorite things was Trick or Treating on Halloween. I’d get home from school, dress up in my costume, join moms and friends and go door-to-door yelling “Trick or Treat!” so people would put candy in my plastic pumpkin.
Door after door we went until our pumpkins were full, then we went back home to empty it, and set out again for more – more candy. At the end of the evening I remember a great pile of candy in the middle of the living room. It was pure gift, freely given for something as simple as saying “Trick or Treat”; given without question or hesitation, given in abundance.
The little boy is faced with a pile of candy and the question, what do I do now? I’ll keep it, it’s mine, I earned it, I’ll eat it all, but mom chimed in. She reminds me that eating lots of candy is bad for me and not allowed, so I tell her I’ll save it. I’ll just eat a little at a time for a long time, and she points out that it will get stale and hard. She suggests I share it, give it away. It was given to you as a gift, why not give half of it away?
You mean I should give my candy to some kids who just sat at home? She says, yes. There are kids who didn’t’ get any candy at all, sick kids, kids who live in neighborhoods where it’s too dangerous to be banging on people’s doors, kids whose parents were working second jobs and couldn’t take them trick or treating, and kids who had to stay home to take care of siblings. Imagine how happy they would be to receive some of your candy. Imagine how good they could feel to know that someone cares about them, someone is thinking about them, someone is willing to share with them. It might inspire them to share with others and suddenly the sweetness, the goodness, and the kindness is spreading even farther; it grows and grows.
Today’s Gospel, the Parable of the Talents, tells of three servants who are entrusted with some of their master’s property, called talents. Two of the three use what they have been given to produce more. They use the gift entrusted to them for good, but one simply hangs on to the gift he was given. He buries it in the ground because, we are told, he was afraid.
It’s fear that keeps us from sharing, from using what has been entrusted to us for good. There are parents who would say that encouraging their child to give some of their Halloween candy away teaches them the wrong lesson. They teach their children to be afraid, afraid of not having as much as someone else, afraid of being taken advantage of, afraid of running out or their abundance. I got mine, it’s up to you to get yours; everyone for herself. It is fear that keeps us isolated one from another, fear divides and separates us.
It is using our gives, our talents, that brings us together and inspires each of us to realize that we are uniquely gifted, and each of us has much to contribute toward building up the kingdom.
This is Stewardship Sunday when we make our pledge, our gift, to St. Paul’s for the coming year. It is a good day to remember that the Master has entrusted us with gifts, talents, freely given like the pile of candy in the middle of the living room floor. Entrusted to us that we will share with others, so the talents might produce even more; might inspire others. I invite you to consider the ways you are blessed. If you have an able body and a good mind; if you have a safe place to live and enough food to eat; if you had people who loved you when you were younger, and people who love you now; if you have friends who care about you; if you call this faith community, this church, home, and come here to be inspired, comforted, challenged, shaped, and formed’; if you grew up in faith communities that helped to shaped and form you, places where you receive the compassion and love of Christ, then your pile of candy is high and waiting to be shared.
May we not live in fear but out of abundance that God so freely showers upon us. Amen.
November 12, 2017 The Rev. Dr. Barbara Elliott
When was the last time you “missed the boat” as we often say—perhaps you missed a deadline, didn’t get your homework in on time, were left out of a meeting, or didn’t make the team…Or even missed a precious opportunity with a loved one. These experiences, yours and mine, are lived experiences that parallel today’s Gospel reading. In the Gospel story, the door to the wedding closed for half of the people who thought they were going to be included. Didn’t happen. We can feel their frustration.
Bishop Tutu, former archbishop of South Africa and Nobel Peace laureate for his work with Apartheid there, tells a story in the Book of Joy about his own life when a door closed for him.
Bishop Tutu describes his father as someone who was a wonderful man when he was sober, but a violent person—especially towards his mother—when he had been drinking. Tutu always wished that he had been able to protect his mother from his father. Then this happened: Tutu and his wife Leah had taken their children to boarding school, and on the return home they needed to over-night near the villages where they were raised. They stopped to greet and wish his parents well, and traveled on to stay with her parents. When they stopped, Tutu’s father said he wanted to talk with him, that there was something he wanted to tell him. Tutu was exhausted, said he was too tired and asked if they might talk the next day. They parted with that intention—and during the night a phone message relayed that his father had died. Tutu observes that he can never know what his father wanted to tell him, and says he does hope it was that his father had wanted to say how sorry he was for the way he had treated his mother. Tutu says: “I have to accept that I missed an opportunity…which will not ever come back.” The door closed. Forever.
This story is truly a 2017 example of today’s Gospel reading, and it causes me to pause and consider what I need to be prepared to do, when and if opportunities arise. The strongest images in today’s Gospel—besides the closed door—are the emphasis on the delay and needed patience, on being prepared, and on staying aware of what is unfolding. The bridesmaids in the story were challenged by each of these steps in their parable. They are just as important for you and me as we hope to avoid missing the next boat...
What boat is it that you don’t want to miss? Perhaps there is something in your life that you are looking toward—a strong desire, or a goal, like learning a new skill, or changing a bad habit. Or maybe it is even bigger than a strong desire, perhaps you have identified your deepest desire and really want to rebuild a broken relationship, spend time with a certain person, or figure out how you will change your career to fulfill your gifts. What would you identify now as your deepest desire? (Or if that isn’t clear just now—what is your strongest desire today?) You might write these down now. If you don’t have an immediate answer, think about these questions this week and consider how you are preparing to accomplish them… Naming our deepest desire is important, as it recognizes and names the work our spirit is doing as we live our lives.
Accomplishing our deep desires follows a path of fits and starts. There can be lots of waiting, set-backs, and also needed preparation to be ready when opportunities present themselves. Think of Bishop Tutu’s story. He truly wanted to reconcile with his father. When this father did invite a conversation, Tutu did not recognize it was the opportunity had had been anticipating. Nor did he know it was the last opportunity he would have to accomplish his deepest desire. As prepared as Tutu was, he was tired and thought—as you and I do—that he had unlimited opportunities to work on his relationship with his father. Then the door closed, as it did in the Gospel story.
We are now approaching the busiest weeks of the year, Thanksgiving through New Years. There will be so many demands on our time, and only so much oil in our lamps, using the Gospel’s metaphor. What is your deepest desire? What will you use your oil for? As the Blessing for Ordinary Times says: Life is short, And we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who make the journey with us. So… be swift to love, and make haste to be kind. And the blessing of God, who made us, who loves us, and who travels with usguide you now and forever. AMEN May it be so. AMEN.
November 5, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.
This is All Saints’ Sunday when we remember and celebrate all the saints “who from their labors rest.” We celebrate saints of long ago, most of whom we never knew or have even heard of. The calendar of saints can be found in your Book of Common Prayer beginning on page 19. Saints of long ago, and some more recent, can be found there, assigned a day when they are remembered and celebrated. Some of those saints you might know like St. Paul, St. Luke, or St. Francis, others whose names you’ve never heard - Benedict of Nursia, Edmund, King of East Anglia, or Nicholas Ferrar.
Whether known or unknown, we believe that they received the designation of sainthood because they lived out their baptismal promises, their lives pointed toward the God who made them and they lived lives of faithful service. Not perfect lives, read any book on the Saints and you’ll find that out. Not perfect, but faithful servants of God.
Something I love to do in preparing for this All Saints Sunday is to spend some time in prayer and reflection on the people whose names will be read right after this sermon; the names of our loved ones who have died and who will be remembered in the litany today.
One woman lived more than ten decades, a long, blessed life. Near the end as she watched more and more of her friends pass away, she would ask, “Why am I still here?” I would try to reassure her, “You’re still bringing joy to people’s lives, you inspire us.”
Another woman was one of the best prayers I have ever met. She prayed from the heart with a sincerity and genuineness that showed her deep love of the Lord and the people around her. Another strived to understand. She was filled with wondering and questions about the Bible, the next life, and God’s purpose for her.
At least three of the saints on our list had the gift of music. One played the organ in more than 15 churches throughout his life, including ours, without losing his marvelous sense of humor. Another played drums in church and in bars; we remember his spirit and his smile. The third played strings. Each of them touching people, moving them, inspiring and lifting them through the wonder, beauty and mystery of music.
One of our saints loved angels and surrounded herself with them. Another loved fishing for Atlantic salmon, stalking them in the streams of Iceland. Another saint spent many years in a wheelchair without losing her cheerfulness. Most lived long lives but one was cut short by ALS, her body slowly losing function, but her mind and spirit remaining strong inspiring the people around her, finding God’s blessing in the midst of earthly sorrow and suffering.
These are the saints whose lives we celebrated here at St. Paul’s. Other names have been added to the list, your loved ones, people whose lives touched and inspired yours. These are the saints close and dear to us, people whose lives pointed to the God who made them, who responded to God’s love, who made God known in ways big and small. People like those Jesus proclaimed Blessed in the Beatitudes we heard in our Gospel today – the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful and pure in heart, the peacemakers and those persecuted for righteousness sake. These are characteristics of saints then and now. Paul Tillich once said, “The saint is saint not because he or she is ‘good’ but because he or she is transparent for something that is more than him or herself.” Transparent for something more that oneself and this is what we remember about them, the ways they were transparent for something, someone, bigger, greater, than themselves. Most of us would name that someone God and that something Love; lives that pointed to love.
Bishop Steven Charleston reminds us: “What you do is critical. You may not think so because you see yourself as being without that much authority or influence, but the things you do count for much more that you may imagine. Every person you reach will touch a thousand more. The direction you share with a single person can turn the wheel of history over time. You are an important part of a great story. You are at the heart of the collective experience of your generation. What you say and do matters, so speak up, take a risk, and dare to be remembered.”
Bishop Steve reminds us of the power of love to transform lives and the world; the power of loving one another. The saints remind us of that today, love lives forever.
May the saints of old and the saints we have known inspire us to be transparent, to let the love of God shine through our lives as it shone through theirs. May they remind us that we are all part of God’s great story and that what we say and do touches others and lasts beyond our lives here on earth.
As we remember and celebrate the saints this day may we give thanks for the ways they touched our lives and be inspired to live out our calling to be saints of God. Amen. OCTOBER SERMONS
October 29, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom, freedom is coming.
The irony of this day is not lost on me, an Episcopal priest, former Roman Catholic, standing before you on Reformation Sunday. We remember that five hundred years ago, October 31, 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the cathedral door in Wittenberg beginning the movement that would become known as The Protestant Reformation.
Back in 1517 the church, at that time there was only the Catholic Church, the church had become corrupt selling indulgences, selling God’s grace, to support building projects. Worship services were in a language most people didn’t understand, as was the Bible, which most people couldn’t read or understand.
The average person’s life was short and difficult so the church encouraged people to focus on the life beyond this one. Life is difficult now, but heaven is wonderful, strive for that. By being good, by doing good works, you can earn a place in paradise. If you don’t you’ll wind up in that other place, hell, eternal torment, even worse that the painful struggles of this life.
Young Martin Luther embraced this outlook. He lived in fear, fear of God, fear of a God who was keeping score and willing to send him to hell. Luther became a monk and immersed himself in the monastic life, confessing his sins, doing penance, praying and doing good works, but he always slipped back. As hard as he tried to be good he would fall back and sin. He would fall back into fear of God who was just waiting to punish him. But then, as the story goes, Luther began to study the Bible, especially Paul’s letter to the Romans.
There Luther discovered the passage we heard as our second reading today. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works presented by the law.” Salvation by grace through faith and not by the works of the law, Luther found it in other places in the scripture as well and it changed his life.
He realized that he was already saved, not by being good but through the grace of God. Grace, God’s love, a free gift, is not earned, but freely given. Grace is stronger, more powerful than human sin. Luther found the truth that made him free, free to live without fear.
Jesus says in the Gospel, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” This comes at the end of a chapter that begins with religious leaders bringing a women accuse of adultery to Jesus. The accusers had the law on their side. It said she should be stoned to death. Jesus didn’t argue, he just bent down in silence and wrote with his finger in the sand. Then he said, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” and the crowd departed. The truth stood with a woman accused. The truth set her free from death and made her free to turn her life around.
Luther and the other reformers encourage us to embrace the free gift of God’s grace, God’s “property to always have mercy,” as Rite I says, and to live it out. But, with freedom comes responsibility at every stage of life. The child is old enough to play in the neighborhood, she must look both ways before crossing the street. She gets her driver’s license and she must follow the rules of the road. She turns twenty-one and must consume responsibly if she chooses to do so.
The freedom spoken of in the Gospel, the freedom won for us by Christ is not license to do anything, to say anything. It is the freedom to be obedient children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ united by bonds of love into the family of God. We Americans cherish our freedoms, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, our individual rights.
These are good things, but over the past days, I have been distressed, stunned even, as I have seen women post “Me, too” on social media sites. Me, too, saying I’ve been sexually harassed or abused. Colleagues and friends have experienced it. Has freedom of expression led to treating other people as objects? Is freedom of speech license to say degrading, demeaning, objectifying things? We are never free to say or do anything that treats another as anything less than a beloved child of God.
In one of his most famous treatises entitled “On Christian Freedom: Luther wrote (and I ask you to excuse the exclusive language) “A Christian man is the most free Lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.” Today our scripture readings and Martin Luther remind us that we are freed by the gift of God’s grace, we can live free from fear, and we are subject to one another.
We are children of God, members of one family, brothers and sisters in Christ, honoring, respecting, loving God and each other as members of the Church, reformed and always reforming.
October 22, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
“Give to God the things that are God’s”
In today’s Gospel, the religious authorities attempt to trap Jesus with a question about paying taxes. If He answers yes, the Torah allows paying taxes, He gets in trouble with religious folks who believe it is wrong that their money supports pagan temples and the Roman armies who oppress them. If He answers no, the Torah forbids paying taxes the Romans can arrest Jesus for suggesting people break the law. He’s trapped, right? Not so fast.
Jesus asks for a coin and they give Him a denarius. The denarius was a Roman coin, one-tenth of a troy ounce of silver with an image stamped on it, the image of Tiberius Caesar, the Emperor of Rome. Jesus asks them the questions, whose image is on the coin and whose title? They answer ‘the Emperor’s,” and Jesus said, “Give to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s.” There’s a nice picture of that on the front of your bulletin, Jesus with the coin in His right hand, His left hand pointing up, so it’s clear enough.
Caesar’s face and name are on the coin, give it to him, but Jesus adds “and give to God the things that are God’s,” this is the key phrase, the one this passage turns on. That command compels the listeners, and us, to ask the question, what belongs to God? You. You belong to God.
There’s a wonderful scene in the now old movie, Toy Story. In Toy Story a boy named Andy has a beloved cowboy doll named Woody who’s afraid he’s going to be replaced by a fancy space toy named Buzz Lightyear. Woody’s afraid Andy doesn’t love him anymore. One of the other toys tells Woody to look at the bottom of his boot, and he does. He sees the name, “Andy.” He belongs to Andy. Andy’s name is written on his boot; he’s beloved, known by name as our first reading says.
Maybe we should do that to remind ourselves to whom we belong. Write the name of God on the bottom of all our shoes so that when the world or anyone in it tells us we are anything less than a beloved child of God, we can look at our shoe and be reminded we belong to God. We are beloved. God’s image shines through us.
Genesis 1, vs. 27: “So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them.” We are created in the image and likeness of God. Write the name God on your shoe or your hand or on your sleeve so that when the world or anyone in it tells you you only have worth insofar as you have things, or good looks, or power, you can look at the name and be reminded that you belong to God and you are beloved.
Caesar’s image is on the coin, give it to him. God’s image is on you, give your life to God. Every aspect of your life belongs to God. Use your gifts and talents to serve God. God’s name is written on your hearts and souls in baptism.
Today we will baptize little Maielle. We baptize in God’s name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. We pray that she will always know to whom she belongs, to God who is love.
She may not write God’s name on her shoes, but it will be written on her heart and her soul. God’s love forms an indelible seal on the hearts and souls of all who believe in God’s love, on all who believe that God’s love is the most powerful force in the universe, stronger even than death.
In today’s Gospel Jesus asks the question whose image is on the coin. Caesar’s, so give it to him. Now whose image is on you? God’s, so give your life to God, the one to whom you belong. The one in whose image and likeness you are made.
Let us pray. Holy God, we were created by you, let us live in your image. We were created for you, let us act for your honor and glory. We were redeemed by you, let us give you what is yours, our hands, hearts, minds and voices. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen
October 1, 2017 Sermon by Rev. Dr. Barbara Elliott
When was the last time someone let you down—said they would do something and then didn’t follow through? There is also the other side of the same issue: when have you let someone down by saying you’d do something and then not done it? In today’s parable, Jesus also describes how there are those among us who say we cannot help and then actually show up to help out. This parable leaves each of us wondering how many times we have each done these things.
These questions are actually part of the much bigger story that makes up today’s Gospel. The real issue in this reading is about authority and Jesus’ role in the church. One of the reading’s major points—and it has entertainment value too—is how Jesus leaves everyone confused in the encounter described here. In this story, Jesus is face-to-face with the church leadership, where he is clearly trying to change things. He has been challenging the ‘human rules’ devised by the church in that era with ‘God’s rules’. In order to create the social change he was proposing, he found himself challenging the authority of the church.
The first question the church leaders ask of Jesus in today’s Gospel is essentially: “Who do you think you are?!” They knew that their longstanding leadership was being challenged by Jesus’ words and his followers. The church leaders had every intention of staying in charge, but they had met their match in Jesus.
Notice how Jesus maneuvered in this conversation: first he answered their question with a question about John the Baptists’ authority that trapped them: they knew that whatever they said in answer to Jesus’ question would cause religious and political trouble for them. When they declined to answer, Jesus then used the parable to push the issue of their authority even further. Jesus asked which of the sons in the story did the right thing? The church leaders answer the question correctly—which then trapped them in a paradox. Even though they gave Jesus the correct answer, their response revealed that their decisions and actions were not consistent with God’s rules. Yes—Jesus was clarifying for everyone present that the church’s rules were not consistent with God’s-rules.
Think about how the church leaders must have felt. No doubt, they felt like you and I do after some of our conversations too: feeling out-maneuvered, uncertain about what had actually been actually been said, frustrated, and knowing that nothing has been resolved.
Yes, when we observe how Jesus used his responses and the parable to make his points, he was ‘playing them’ to make his points. Jesus is all about social change, and this encounter with the Jewish leadership shows how Jesus was working to put God’s rules back in charge.
Just as the world we live in today, the social system that Jesus was part of was based on rules created by humans; Jesus’ work was to focus our lives on our love for each other and for God. And of course, love in community settings is known as justice.
In any case, we are all actively participating in on-going social change today, too. This brings us back to the parable and the questions it raises regarding how our personal life decisions play out today, and how our actions line up with our beliefs that we ‘love our neighbor and love God.’ Jesus’ parable is clear that we are to make decisions and act in ways that use God’s rules, enhancing how we love each other and love God. Jesus’ point is that by doing this, we will build a Beloved Community based on that love and justice.
So, yes, we each have made promises we did not keep. And we have stepped away from commitments, only to return to them for the right reasons. This is on-going: two very current examples are a) We say we want to love our neighbor, but we don’t share our resources with immigrants or refugees. And a second example: b) we say undocumented youth need to be deported, but there may also be a way to let them stay... There are lots of ways we do exactly what the men in the parable did.
Nonetheless, and despite our honest anxieties about what tomorrow may bring, today is another chance to give Jesus authority in our lives: another beginning to recognize and build a world with God’s rules. We keep trying to love each other, love God, and build this Beloved Community. AMEN SEPTEMBER SERMONS
September 24, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
You have made them equal to us. Them and us in today’s Gospel. The all-day workers complaining that the one-hour workers received the same pay. There’s a television show called Undercover Boss, perhaps you’ve seen it. It’s a show where the owner of a business or company, the boss, goes undercover with the help of elaborate disguises to do the work that his or her employees do to experience what it’s like to work in that place.
The best part is when the boss gets to know her employees and what life is like for them. And in the end one or two of the employees is rewarded in some way. In one episode the boss was a franchise owner of a popular fast food restaurant. He put on his disguise and uniform and went to work. He was shocked by how difficult the work was - the unrelenting orders, the standing all day, the noise, the monotony, the crabby customers.
He was trained by a young woman who really wanted to continue her education, but she couldn’t because she spent all her money supporting her younger siblings. Her mother had been killed in a tragic accident. In another episode, the owner of a manufacturing plant in northern Illinois joined workers on the line in his plant. Again, he was shocked at how hard they worked, how limited the breaks, how unforgiving the supervisors were if they were late. The owner met a man who couldn’t spend much time with his children because he had a two-hour bus ride, each way.
A third show was a hotel chain owner who went undercover to work as a housekeeper and then in the kitchen. Many of her employees were immigrants working long hours cooking and cleaning. She got to know them, the difficulty of the work, their worries about their status.
The shows always end with the bosses reflecting on how little they knew about their employees and the work they do. Some bosses vow to raise pay, to provide benefits, and change working conditions, and in the show, the bosses reward an employee or two.
The fast food owner paid for the education of the young woman raising her siblings. The manufacturing plant owner bought a car for the guy who rode the boss. The hotel owner began to use her influence to work for immigration reform. All of them had their eyes opened, their hearts softened when they got to know the people who worked for them.
What happens is it’s no longer them and us. They’re no longer just cogs in the machine, but people. People with struggles and hopes and dreams and challenges who want a better life for their children, just like the bosses.
Today’s Gospel paints a picture of a common scene in the ancient world and today. Day laborers hanging out in the town square waiting for someone to hire them to pick grapes, or tomatoes, oranges or strawberries. Some are hired at the break of dawn, after they agree to the usual daily wage. In Jesus’ day it was one denarius, enough for a man to feed his family for one day. Enough to provide daily bread.
Throughout the day, the landowner hires more workers, agreeing to pay them whatever is right, not fair, but right, all the way to 5:00! The landowner hires some who’ll only work one hour. We might wonder why some workers come later or why they weren’t hired earlier. Perhaps they were caring for children or an elderly parent. Maybe they were not as physically or mentally able as the others. Perhaps the landowner could see this, or maybe he knew their stories, their struggles.
Regardless, the landowner pays them all a daily wage, gives them all enough to feed their families. What do the all-day workers say? Thank you? We’ll have enough to eat? No, “when they received it, they grumbled.” They complained like the people Israel in the wilderness in today’s first reading who receive daily bread in the form of manna from the sky. They grumbled and made the claim that shows us that this is a parable about the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man.
You have made them equal to us. Them and us is how things work in the kingdom of man, the earthly kingdom. In the kingdom of God, all are beloved; beloved children of a God who loves us all equally. In the kingdom of God we are known, we are unique and gifted, we have our story, our own ups and downs, joys and challenges, and we all share the same dream of being valued and respected and loved knowing that we are part of the Beloved Community that Christ came to usher in.
The kingdom moment in that television show happens when the bosses hear their employees’ stories and get to know them as fellow human beings. They are no longer just employees, they are people with struggles and hopes and dreams. This is how it is in the kingdom of God. No them and us, only beloved children, paid equally, loved equally.
In our world of them and us may we work to break down the walls, to hear the stories, to challenge the stereotypes and judgments. May we work to respect the dignity of every human being so that God’s kingdom will come. Amen.
September 17, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
When I was sixteen years old, I smashed my father’s brand new car. He hadn’t had a new car for years. It was a Jeep Wagoneer and it had about thirty-four miles on it when I took it out that bright, summer day. I asked him to use it because it was much cooler than my mom’s cruddy, brown Honda Civic.
We lived in the country so there was very little traffic. I came to the stop sign where the other direction had the right-of-way. I thought I looked both ways, but truth be known I was fiddling with the radio and thinking about the girl who lived up the road, thinking how cool I was. Perfectly bright sunny day, I pulled out, smash, that heart-stopping sound of metal on metal. I was hit in the rear quarter panel, hard; it spun me around.
Regaining my senses I realized I was okay. I rushed out to see about the other car, he was okay, thank God. I felt some relief but now. . . I was given a citation, the other car was towed away and I limped my father’s car home. What now? I know I’ll pay for it, so he won’t have to submit a claim. My mom came out into the garage and gave me a hug, happy that everyone was okay.
She surveyed the damage. I said, “I have almost a hundred dollars, do you think it will cost more than that?” She looked at me with pity and quietly said, “I think it might be more.” “Alright, I’ll pay for it, no matter how long it takes. I’ll take care of it.” And then she said something we heard a lot as kids, “Wait till your father gets home.”
Oy, words that struck fear in the hearts of Van Oss children. My mom was the nurturer, my father the enforcer. He had few words, but always clear. It was a long, long day waiting for him to get home. I had my plan, I’ll pay for it, even it if takes a lifetime.
Finally, I heard the sound of his tires crushing gravel on the driveway. I walked out into the garage. He pulled the cruddy brown Honda Civic in next to his shiny, new, but deeply wounded Jeep. He slowly got out of the car holding his briefcase, came around the back of the Civic, and stood surveying the damage. I wasn’t even breathing.
Then he looked at me, put down his briefcase, came over and put his arm around me. He said words I’ll never forget. “It’s just a thing, it can be replaced. What’s important is that no one was hurt.” Then he picked up his briefcase, walked into the house and never spoke a word about the accident again. Forgiveness is grace. I received great grace that day.
Great forgiveness in today’s Gospel. The first servant is forgiven a debt of ten thousand talents! Scripture scholars tell us this would have been 150,000 years-worth of income for a laborer at the time; three thousand financial life sentences. Clearly, Jesus uses hyperbole to make a point. It was a debt he had no chance of ever paying back, like a teenager with a smashed car. It was absurd, hyperbole again, for him to say, have patience, and I’ll pay you everything. Impossible. Yet the king forgives him, gives him a gift of grace, he wipes it away.
And what happens? He refuses to forgive a fellow servant who owes him a tiny fraction of what he owed the king, a hundred denarii, which was a payable debt even though his fellow servant made exactly the same plea, have patience and I will pay you.
The great sin of the unforgiving servant is his refusal to live out the grace he had received. He was given a great gift, forgiveness, and he refused to share that gift with someone who owed him. We can only speculate why. The Gospel does not tell us, but it is likely he was not grateful for the gift. Perhaps he thought he was entitled, or that he had put one over on his boss. Either way, his refusal to live out the gift of grace that had been given to him ended up costing him in the end.
I have tried, since the day of that accident so long ago to live out the grace my dad showed me. I have tried to be grateful for that gift and give it back so that when something goes missing or gets damaged or broken, I can say, it’s just a thing. What matters is people, what matters is relationships. I have not always done this perfectly, but I like to think I try.
Because when I see people on the news who have suffered loss of property due to hurricane, flood or fire, I feel sorry for them, but when I hear them cry, “I have lost everything,” I think, no, if you can say those words and it’s only stuff you’ve lost, you haven’t lost the most important thing.
Take some time to remember that God has forgiven everything, everything you’ve ever done, every penny forgiven and look back on your life, go back to a time when someone forgave you for something you said or did. Take a moment to say, “Thank you,” for forgiveness, for the gift of grace, and make a promise to try to live out that gift each day. Amen.
September 10, 2017 Rally Sunday The Rev. Bill Van Oss
There have been so many inspiring stories of generosity and compassion in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in Houston and now with Irma in the Caribbean and Florida as I speak. So many people doing something; doing what they can to help others in need including the good people of St. Cuthbert’s Episcopal Church in Houston.
I was really touched by the story of a man known as Mattress Mack. Mattress Mack’s real name is Jim who is the owner of a number of large furniture stores in Houston. (You might have seen him on the news.) Immediately as people were being flooded out of their homes, Mattress Mack put out word that they were welcome in his furniture stores. Hundreds of people poured in. He put them up on display beds and sofas and on piles of rugs. People filled his furniture stores. A family was interviewed who was sleeping on a $5,000 sectional. Not only that, Mattress Mack brought in food and water for his guests. He sent his furniture trucks out into the streets to pick up people to bring them to the store.
Each time he was interviewed on TV it was clear Mattress Mack wasn’t looking for praise, he just wanted people to know they could come to his stores for shelter, food and water. A kind, generous man, not counting the cost but simply seeing suffering and doing what he could to help; heroic generosity.
As I saw Mattress Mack’s smiling face on the news encouraging displaced people to come to his stores, I thought, I bet this isn’t the first time this man has been generous, so I did a little research and discovered that Mattress Mack has been supportive of causes and people in need for a long time. One person he helped eight years ago said, “I wasn’t surprised at all (to hear he opened up his stores); he hasn’t changed a bit since he helped me out all those years ago.”
This is a pattern in his life, being generous and compassionate; seeing suffering and responding. Was he born this way? Was it programmed into his genes in the womb? Perhaps, but it’s more likely he became generous through practicing generosity in small ways over and over so that he was ready when the big one hit. It was a reflex he developed through practice.
If you decide today that you want to run a marathon and you are not a runner it’s best not to just strap on shoes and try to run 26.2 miles. You might want to begin with brisk walking followed by jogging a few blocks, then a mile, and so on because you have to build up your muscles, and the best way to do that is gradually. Short distances, light weights at first, doing that over and over until you can run a bit longer, lift a bit more. You are building up your muscles. The same is true with spiritual practices, like generosity.
If you tend to be tight-fisted, you can build your generosity muscles by finding small ways to give. Over and over your generosity muscles will get stronger. Mattress Mack didn’t decided to be heroically generous overnight, it took a lifetime of practice building his spiritual muscles.
The same is true of forgiveness which Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel. Jesus presents a kind of formula for reconciliation. When someone hurts or offends you, don’t run around telling everyone else, approach the person directly and work it out. If that doesn’t work, take someone else and try to work it out with the help of someone you trust. Jesus acknowledges that sometimes reconciliation is not possible, the relationship cannot be restored. If someone is unwilling to change, unwilling to do the work, forgive and let it go.
As with generosity, with practice forgiveness and reconciliation is something we can get good at. We can build our “forgiveness muscles” by forgiving small offenses, over and over, by approaching someone we have harmed directly and saying “I’m sorry”, and by accepting the apology of someone who has harmed us for even small things so that we develop our spiritual muscles. Forgiveness becomes a reflex and we become good at reconciliation so that when the hurricane hits, when we are deeply offended or betrayed, we can forgive even then.
Being community is hard work whether that community is family, school, work, neighborhood, or church. There are times that we blow it. We say or do things that hurt others, even those closest to us. Mattress Mack became heroically generous through a lifetime of practicing generosity, in small and big ways. When we practice forgiving and reconciling over and over for small things our spiritual muscles are strong when the heavy lifting is required.
September 3, 2017 The Rev. Dr. Barbara Elliott
Bad things happen. This past week Hurricane Harvey caused deep pain and suffering. Steve Charleston observed that we have watched “Image after image of things being washed away. Image after image of lives being rescued from the storm. These events have repeated one of the oldest and deepest spiritual messages of our human story: what we count on in our human lives can be washed away; life alone remains of value, fragile yet enduring.”
Experiences like this natural disaster remind us that we humans have two ways of knowing our world: our human approach (using our ego or false self) values our possessions and tries to control and be successful in life. The other approach uses a larger perspective (using our soul or Spirit, sometimes called the true self). When we look at life through the eyes of our ego, our human rules make the losses and suffering we experience very painful. Those are our human eyes—and the suffering is real! Using our Spirit’s, or our soul’s eyes, we begin with the knowledge that we are all connected, and that another’s pain is our pain, too. Compassion and assistance to aid those who are suffering become the foundation for our ‘loving one another.’ It does amaze me as I review the readings for each week that the message in the Gospel specifically opens our understanding of what is happening in today’s world, 2000 years later. That is true this week too.
Today’s Gospel begins to tell the story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and his death. This is the first of three times that Jesus tells his Disciples that his death is coming. They don’t want to hear that Jesus will suffer and be killed. As we read today, Peter even said to Jesus that “This must never happen to you!”
However, Jesus then goes after Peter—telling him that he is “a stumbling block…for setting his mind on human things” (not divine things). Clearly, Jesus was trying to move Peter and the other Disciples to using their Spirit eyes to understand and have compassion for what lay ahead.
Like Peter, and perhaps like you, I have things I have wanted to happen in this life and I have worked hard to make them true. I have learned the hard way, repeatedly over the years in fact, that I am not the one in charge…and that is the big lesson that Jesus is exasperatedly trying to convey Peter in this Gospel.
Fortunately for us, the Hurricane didn’t happen here. When is the last time you were reminded that you are not the one in charge or control of your life and experiences? Maybe it was a recent accident, or a pregnancy, or job change, or maybe a diagnosis. There are lots of ways the ‘two-by-four to the forehead’ reminds us of that we are not in charge.
An important lesson in this Gospel is that Jesus was emphasizing that our lives do include suffering and pain…believing in God or Jesus doesn’t make the pain and suffering go away. Instead, that is what it means to “take up the cross and follow” Jesus. Another more nuanced part of this Gospel is recognizing that Jesus also uses this experience to show that his life story is as important to the Christian message as his teachings.
Knowing the story of Jesus’ life and death is essential in our understanding what it is to be Christian. We know there is pain in this life—that bad things happen. We also know that being there for each other as we encounter these hurts is part of how we “love one another and love God.” As Jesus observes in this Gospel reading, when we try to avoid the pain and deny the suffering, we are living by our human desires or our false selves, and we lose access to the life that the Jesus’ story offers us.
Jesus died on the cross, showing us that human life includes the horrors of being demeaned, hurt, and even killed. As we walk the human part of Jesus’ story, we experience how God’s love is always with us. Nothing can separate us from God’s love, even—and maybe especially—our hardest times. That is God’s grace, an amazing grace. AMEN
August 27, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
“And I tell you,” Jesus says, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” The gates of Hades, the gates of hell, will not prevail against God’s people, the church.
A long time ago, way back when I was in seminary, I was part of a conversation about our baptismal service. Some enlightened seminarians were wondering whether the questions about evil and sin at the beginning of the baptism service were really necessary. You know the questions, asked of the person being baptized, if they are old enough, or of the parents and sponsors, if they are making the promises for a baby.
Question: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? Answer: I renounce them. Question: Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? Answer: I renounce them. Question: Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God: Answer: I renounce them.
The questions, renouncing Satan and evil powers, have been part of baptism since the second century and are part of baptism in other denominations as well. The Lutheran Book of Worship asks: “Do you renounce all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises?” Similarly, the Roman Catholics ask: “Do you reject the glamor of evil, and refuse to be mastered by sin?” and “Do you reject Satan, father of sin and prince of darkness?”
Questions about evil, Satan, wickedness and darkness at a baptism! My seminary friends struggled. Baptisms are nice with a happy, little smiling baby in a white dress, everyone oohing and aahing, we want to feel good. Let’s leave Satan and the forces of darkness out of it, they make us uncomfortable. This begs the questions, do we believe in evil?
In today’s Gospel Jesus is preparing Peter and the disciples, the first ones to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God, to deal with the gates of Hades. The gates of Hades represented the rallying point of Satan’s forces. Satan and his fellow devils having a rally at the city gate, just as the city gate was the rallying place of an army. Jesus knew that evil was very, very real.
Like the story from Exodus this morning, our first reading, Joseph had saved the Egyptians, and his own people, through his dreams. Joseph dreamed how famine was coming and he told Pharaoh so the Egyptians could store grain, Joseph’s family came to Egypt to be saved as well. But a “new king,’ our reading tells us today did not know Joseph, how soon they forget.
The new pharaoh saw the Israelites as a threat and so he made them slaves and oppressed them with forced labor. Slavery is evil. Not only that, Pharaoh was so threatened he ordered all the Hebrew baby boys tossed in the Nile to drown. If anything is, murdering babies is evil.
This is a story about an evil king, one who enslaved and murdered, but it’s also a story of courage and compassion. The courage and compassion of women, the Egyptian midwives who refused to murder the Hebrew boys, Moses’ mother, and Pharaoh’s daughter who stood up to the forces of evil, who resisted, and saved a baby boy names Moses who would set his people free.
Jesus knew this story of an evil king and how courageous and compassionate women stood up to him and saved an entire nation. Jesus knew that there was evil in the world and that choosing to follow him would require standing up to the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. Jesus knew it; the question is, do we?
Are we squeamish about naming evil and standing up to it? Have we so personalized sin by making it about impure thoughts, or selfishness, or having stolen a candy bar when we were ten that we miss the forces of sin and death swirling all around us? Have we made following Jesus about feeling good rather that doing good in the face of evil?
We, followers of Jesus, we the church, must be absolutely, unambiguously clear. Racism is evil. Nazism is evil. White Supremacy is evil. The hatred and violence of the KKK is evil. No moral equivalencies, no “everyone is flawed.”
These are forces opposed to the truth of God’s love for every human being and the command of Jesus to love our neighbor as ourselves. These are the forces that Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel will not prevail. They will not prevail if we live out our baptismal promises. And so, I invite you to open your Book of Common Prayer to page 302 and join me in renouncing the forces of evil.
Question: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? Answer: I renounce them. Question: Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? Answer: I renounce them. Question: Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? Answer: I renounce them.
Now that we have stood up to what draws us away from God, we can pledge to turn, embrace, and follow with the next three questions.
Question: Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? Answer: I do. Question: Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? Answer: I do. Question: Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord? Answer: I do.
The gates of Hades will not prevail against God’s people, the Church. Alleluia! Amen.
August 20, 2017 The Rev. Dr. Barbara Elliott
Every Sunday, our sermons consider what the week’s lectionary readings have to teach us. Today, our readings tell stories about Jesus meeting people who were very different from him and how he demonstrated God’s love in the face of these differences. Jesus’ examples in these readings—again—offer us insights on how we practice God’s love in our own lives, in these chaotic times.
These past 10 days have brought us Americans face-to-face with our brutal and un-ambiguous differences. As we saw in Charlottesville last week, people used our country’s laws to champion their racism. Their demonstration resulted in what can be defined as domestic terrorism: Americans using violence to hurt and kill other Americans and to destroy property. The group of White Supremists who demonstrated in Charlottesville believe that their racist perspective should be the only one with power in America. Their right to demonstrate is legal, but their beliefs are not Christian, and their use of violence is criminal.
The night when this occurred in Charlottesville, I was at a performance about Steve Job’s life—you might have heard about the opera that is premiered this summer about him. It describes how Jobs’ life and work resulted in a huge social change: thanks to his genius, we are now a society that is dependent on our smartphones. They provide information, maps, news, and most of our social contacts. They have also effectively isolated us from people who are different from us, furthering the divisions in our society.
Have you become aware of how separated and closed we Americans are becoming? These days, our contacts with the world are through the channels we watch for the news and through our ‘friends’ in FB, etc. Both of these media are programmed to make sure we see ideas and thoughts that are similar to ours. As it turns out, these experiences separate us further from people who are different from us—and can leave us fearful about ‘those people’ who are different. So, we have watched as we humans create rules and laws about 1) how to behave around people who differ from us, like what clothing—a hijab—can be worn where; 2) like having possibilities for defending ourselves including gun laws; and 3) like making public presentations that claim our positions with demonstrations.
As today’s Gospel shows us, these social separations and behaviors are not new. Today’s Gospel gives us examples of how the social world was similarly segregated in Jesus’ era. In today’s Gospel, Jesus encounters two groups who are not in his social group, and he confronts his society’s rules about interacting with them. In the first example, Jesus was talking to a group of people that included religious leaders who were a different sub-group of Judaism. In that conversation, Jesus was trying to broaden their thinking that said true believers followed certain eating rituals about washing themselves before eating to accomplish God’s purposes. Jesus tried to change their perspective by describing that God’s purpose is bigger than food rituals. Jesus said the important part was to be mindful about what came out of the mouth—that it is the words that can improve human relationships with love.
The second part of the Gospel provides another example of Jesus encountering a differing social group. In this story, Jesus is talking with a woman from a social group that according to the customs of the day, he needed to avoid. We know this because his disciples asked him to send her away, and Jesus even insults her in their conversation. However, as part of his exchange with the Canaanite woman, Jesus realized that his teachings about our need to love and respect one another extend to all humanity, regardless of our human rules about one another.
Which brings us back to today and the terrorism in our midst. These two examples in the Gospels offer guidance for us on how to connect with people who are in different social groups from where we find ourselves. We Christians can choose to follow Jesus’ example, using an intentional and disciplined approach, responding with love when we meet someone different from us. Jesus showed us how to practice God’s love, using it to guide our actions and to learn from others. This comes down to living the love promised in our Baptismal covenant: that we strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
When was the most recent time you encountered someone who thinks differently from you? Someone who lives as part of a different group from you, or a different culture—whether defined by skin color, political opinions, age, gender, level of income and poverty, or maybe even immigration status? Our society has so many ways of separating us and keeping us away from people who are different from us.
Race, or skin color, and differing political positions have created the events of this past week. What did you grow up with? Much as I loved him, I was raised by a racially bigoted father; my mother did not share his opinions. I do not know why racists and bigots are part of certain families, but I am sure as Nelson Mandela said: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background, or his religion.” When words and actions create hatred, we can no longer ignore these differences in our families and community. The conversations about race in the home I grew up in were hard, but they made us all reflect on our biases and prejudices.
Now we need to all revisit these conversations, in light of our commitment to our Baptismal covenant and Jesus’ guidance from scripture about how we move forward in these times of tension and fear. The work of healing what divides us is God’s work. Jesus gave us some examples of how to have these conversations. Let us pray that like Jesus and the courageous Canaanite woman, we can practice God’s love to bridge the gaps between groups. AMEN
August 13, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
There once was a man who got a new hunting dog. He was very excited about his new dog and couldn’t wait for duck hunting season to arrive. The first morning of duck hunting the man and his new dog were sitting in his blind and along flies a duck. The man shoots and the duck falls into the lake.
The hunter sent his dog and it proceeds to walk on the water, pick up the duck, and bring it back. The man was stunned. He shot another duck and it fell into the lake and again the dog walked on the water and brought it back.
Not wanting to be thought a fool, the man told no one about this, but the next day he asked his neighbor to come out and hunt with him. As before, the man shot a duck that fell into the lake and the dog walked on the water to get it. His neighbor didn’t say a word. Several more ducks were shot and retrieved by the dog that could walk on water. Each time, the owner said nothing and the neighbor said nothing. Finally, unable to contain himself the dog’s owner asked his neighbor, “Do you notice anything strange about my new dog?” “Sure do,” his neighbor replied, “Your dog doesn’t know how to swim.”
A dog walking on water . . . Peter, in today’s Gospel, walking on water, an impossible thing, walking on water, (unless it’s January in Minnesota). Peter was able to do an impossible thing until he became afraid.
When I was a boy you could almost walk on the water of the Fox River in Green Bay, and the mouth of the bay, because the water was so polluted. Think PCB’s and PCP’s and all sorts of junk tossed in by industries and people. Then the environmental folks and government folks and local people affected by this pollution decided to do something that seemed impossible, clean up the river and the bay. Out of this the Clean Water Act was born, people worked hard, industries and individuals changed their practices and today the water is clean enough to swim in. Clean enough to eat the fish caught in the water.
I am sure there were many who said it couldn’t be done, or that the paper companies would go under, but they didn’t give in to fear and they did what seemed impossible. Thirty years ago, a hole in the earth’s ozone layer was growing and a group of scientists and policymakers met in Montreal to figure out how to solve it. It probably seemed impossible, to fix a hole in the earth’s atmosphere, but the Montreal Protocol, restricting the use of harmful gases like CFC’s led to the rebuilding of the ozone layer; it’s starting to heal as the result of wise collective human action accomplishing a seemingly impossible thing. As with the cleaning up of lakes and rivers in the 1970’s and 1980’s, there were certainly people who said it couldn’t be done, who tried using fear to derail the efforts.
Peter believed he could do the impossible, that he could walk on water, and he stepped out of the boat and did it until he became afraid. Once he stopped focusing on the good, the destination, the dream, once he stopped focusing on Jesus and instead turned his attention to the headwinds and chaos around him, once he became afraid, he began to sink.
Fear of the unknown, fear of ridicule, fear of failure, fear of change, all keep us from doing what seems impossible. What impossible thing are we being called to do? End homelessness and hunger in our community? Heal the planet from climate change? Provide decent healthcare for all? End violence and racism like that in Charlottesville, VA in all its ugly forms? Take the first steps in recovery? Reconcile with someone in your family? Learn to love yourself as God loves you?
Peter’s stepping out into the seemingly impossible so long ago reminds us that we can do difficult, even impossible things, with God’s help if we stay focused on the One who is always inviting us into deeper relationship and if we do not allow fear to swallow us up.
August 6, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
“All who hunger”
Are you hungry: Well, you’re probably going to be when I’m done because the Bible has an awful lot to say about food. Food is in the Bible from the very beginning. In the creation story in Genesis God plants the Garden of Eden and gives Adam and Eve the plants and the trees for food. God gives food from the very beginning of time.
Food was an important part of hospitality in the ancient world. When strangers show up at Abraham and Sarah’s door in Genesis 18, the first thing Abraham does is ask Sarah to make some bread for their guests. They were hungry, you have to feed them.
There are the stories of how drought led to famine and starvation because the people did not have bread. Joseph, of the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, is sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers. He has dreams that famine is coming to the land and he warns Pharaoh who orders the Egyptians to store grain for the upcoming drought. Joseph’s brothers then come to Egypt to buy some of that grain so they can have bread, so they will live. Bread of Life.
In a similar way Elijah in 1Kings 17 meets the Widow of Zarephath whose jar is running out of meal and whose jug has little oil. Elijah asks her to trust God and make him a little bread to eat and her jar never runs out, her jug is never dry.
So many stories about food in the Bible. Even a passing glance at Leviticus reveals lists and lists of clean and unclean foods. Religious rules dictated what one could eat and not eat, who you could have at your table, and who was forbidden to come to your table.
In the system of temple sacrifice where animal and grain offerings were given to God, once those sacrifices were made, the food did not go to waste. It was used by those who offered the sacrifice and any they could not use was given to the poor. Food was not to be wasted.
Psalm 34 tells us to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord;” taste God’s goodness. God is food. Isaiah paints a beautiful vision of the heavenly banquet feast, “A feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” Yum. Heaven is a feast.
Manna in the wilderness fed the people Israel; food fell from heaven to save them. It was the bread of heaven. It was God giving life to God’s people in the manna, in the bread.
Then comes Jesus. Jesus taught us to pray “Give us this day our daily bread.” Give us enough food each day, we pray. Jesus was born in Bethlehem which means “House of Bread.” Laid in a manger, laid in a food trough, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life, they who come to me will never hunger.” And, at the Last Supper he picks up bread and says, “Take, eat, this is my body given for you.”
There are four hundred and sixty-six references to bread in the Bible, four hundred and sixty-six! None is more important than the one we find in today’s Gospel, a story that appears in each of the four Gospels, the multiplication of the loaves. Five loaves and two fish become enough for fifty thousand men, plus women and children, with twelve baskets left over, to boot.
This miraculous feeding story stands in a long line of feeding stories throughout the Bible and it has several things to teach us about God and about us. It shows us that God takes what we are willing to offer and turns it into enough, into abundance even. Five loaves and two fish, a simple, humble offering is enough in God’s hands.
The multiplication story shows that Jesus breaks down divisions and feeds all who come to Him. It was the outcast and the sick who pursued Jesus into that deserted place. It was the people on the margins who were fed that day. The only requirement to receive the bread was to be hungry, just like our table here today. All are welcome to this table, the only thing required is to be hungry for communion with God and each other.
The story of the miraculous feeding of the five thousand is clearly a foreshadowing of Jesus giving Himself to us in the Eucharist at this table and as we are fed here, we are called to go forth and feed a hungry world with the compassion, love and mercy of Christ.
The Gospel makes it clear that Jesus gave the bread to the disciples who then gave it to the crowds. In the same way, as we are fed at this table today, we are called to feed others. I began with the question, are you hungry? God has been coming to God’s people as food, as bread, since the beginning of time and throughout salvation history.
God comes to us, this day, as the bread of life and the cup of salvation. May we be fed and then go forth to feed a hungry world. Amen.
June 25, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
So do not be afraid, you are of more value that many sparrows.
Today’s Gospel passage is part of a long section of Matthew’s Gospel commonly called the Missionary Discourse. It consists of a series of sayings as Jesus sends His disciples out on their mission. It’s bits of wisdom, advice, on how to live His teachings, how to be His followers.
The first thing to notice about these sayings is that they are not asking the disciples to give intellectual assent to theological propositions. In other words, believing in Jesus is not about ideas, not about how you live your life. Discipleship is work. Discipleship is about what you do and say. It’s not just ideas in your head, and it comes through loud and clear in today’s passage that discipleship will not always be easy.
Following Jesus will involve taking risks and standing against how the world operates and treats some people and sometimes being at odds with others, even people near to us, so that we can proclaim and live out the unconditional love of God for each and every human being. These are difficult sayings in our Gospel passage today.
Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” A sword. “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” Difficult sayings. Jesus is the Prince of Peace, right? Jesus came to unite us in bonds of love, right? What of these words of sword and divisions, even among families?
As I pondered these troubling sayings in my comfortable office last week, my mind went back to our recent trip to Chicago. We walked down Michigan Avenue where I watched people coming and going from the high-end retail stores and I saw people asking for handouts on the sidewalk. The people looking for a handout cannot approach you and ask, instead they sit quietly on the sidewalk holding a cardboard sign that gives you a tiny piece of their story.
One man held a sign that said, PTSD-war veteran,” another said, “Unable to walk,” another was looking for “21 dollars to pay for a room.” Most said, “Homeless, Hungry.” No family, no one. They sat quietly, most simply watching the people go by and thanking the ones who dropped something in their cup, but I noticed one man who was very intently reading a thick book. He wasn’t watching the people pass by, he was reading with fervor and intensity. I could even see his lips moving. When I looked down I saw that he was reading the Bible.
I thought about that beggar feverishly reading his Bible as I pondered Jesus’ difficult sayings in my comfortable office last week. I wondered how difficult those saying would sound to him from his perspective. Jesus brings not peace but a sword, a sword to dismantle unjust systems that lead to so many ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’
The man on the street might see the sword as God’s desire to cut out, to eliminate blighted neighborhoods, and racism and violence, and failing schools. Take the sword to the battle against addiction and mental illness, for he knows in his heart that peace can only come when there is justice and opportunity for all of God’s children.
I wondered about Jesus’ saying about discord and division in families. How would that sound to the man on the street? For me growing up in a safe and loving home these are difficult words to understand, but the man might have grown up with abuse, or neglect. He might have been told he was worthless and wouldn’t amount to anything, or perhaps he grew up in a fundamentalist family who wouldn’t accept who he is.
The Lord telling him to separate himself from that would be Good News, but the lines of today’s Gospel that might have the most impact on him might be these, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from God. And even the hairs of your head are all counted.” Imagine how that would sound to the guy on the street as all those people are passing by. To know that God cares about him, that God loves him even to the point of knowing the hairs on his head. It might be the only love he’s even known.
When we encounter difficult passages, difficult sayings in the Bible, it is good to consider them not just from our perspective, but from someone else’s. What might these words sound like to someone whose life is very different from mine? How does reflecting on them from another person’s perspective inspire me to do the work of discipleship? Inspire us to do the work of building a more just, compassionate and humane world, the work of building the world as God intended it to be.
June 18, 2017 The Rev. Dr. Barbara Elliott
Since I saw you last, I have been in Ireland where Celtic spirituality has deep roots—I was there to experience Ireland and learn more about their spirituality. One of the Irish proverbs, or wise sayings, has stayed with me. They say: It is in the shelter of each other, that people live. Again: It is in the shelter of each other, that people live.
With this statement the Irish people reveal that the only way we get through life is together—staying together in good and hard times, helping each other, celebrating and crying together. Taking care of each other.
One way we do this is by listening to each other. When was the last time someone really listened to you? Really heard you? We remember when this happens, because it isn’t common—and it usually isn’t an encounter with someone we know well in our day-to-day life. If we have the luck of the Irish, this deep listening happens when we really need it—when we are experiencing hard times. We recognize it, because that is when we connect “at a soul level” with that person…the connection is at a very personal level, and they become hugely important in your sense of who you are. They are a ‘soul friend’.
In Ireland, these special people in our lives are called “Anam Caras”: Soul friends. These relationships are recognized and honored as part of the Celtic heritage. When we are with our Anam Cara, our souls meet, and we are our authentic selves. Our Anam Cara listens deeply, without judgement. They help us find a way through our challenges and pain, knowing the path forward will come from inside you. They listen deeply and stay with us as we begin to heal. Our Anam Cara—what a precious, sacred friend.
This information was very much a part of me as I read our readings for this Sunday—and fascinating to me, there we hear Jesus training his Disciples to be Anam Caras in their work as Apostles. This reading describes how Jesus commissioned 12 of his Disciples to be his extenders—there was so much work to do, that Jesus couldn’t do it all. So he chose some of his followers to serve others by bringing his work to places where he couldn’t be.
Jesus tells these ‘Apostles’ (those sent out) that their job was to do things for the people they met who were hurting. It is clear from what Jesus says that they each had what they needed to be his Apostle: the gift of the Spirit, their faith. Jesus then sent them into a world like ours: where people live, feeling overwhelmed with information, distractions, and competing truths. The Apostles were not Jesus—they were not perfect—but people just like you and me, who were being sent to make things happen ‘with God’s help.’ Jesus explained that their work was to recognize people who were suffering and be present with them. Then these people would know God’s love through the Apostles, which then allowed them to live in the gap between the real and the ideal. This faith helped them, in those years, to know how to be with both the darkness and the light at the same time in their lives. It works the same way still, today.
The reading describes how Jesus sent the Apostles to meet people where there was sickness, death, and demons, like Jesus did. Jesus did not commission them to teach. Jesus sent the Apostles out to be presence, be with, those who welcomed them. These actions were to be with others in the moment, in the now, and to listen compassionately, bringing the experience of the spirit and sharing God’s peace ad grace. It is also interesting to note that the Apostles’ own experience was to be offered, but also recognizing that it doesn’t always connect. Jesus said they should just leave when that happened, saying ‘Shake the dust off your feet and move on.’
Which brings us back to today and how these readings can offer us lessons on how we live our lives. We each know we have rugged times, times of struggle and suffering, when we especially need an Anam Cara, an Apostle, to listen deeply to us, to share a moment of peace and the grace of hope. You likely can name people who have offered this for you.
All of us are people of faith, called to love each other, sharing the gifts of the Spirit. From time to time, we may also be called to be Apostles or Anam Caras, as in today’s reading. Then we share our spirit-based presence, our Anam Cara presence, with someone as they live their darkness. We stay with them as long as we are welcome, listening deeply and being peaceful presence. Perhaps you are remembering when you have offered that love in the past. No doubt, you are remembering how you have received it in the past, as well.
This time in our history is a time of deep wounds, of anger and confusion. It is our job to restore civility, reason and relationships. Can we do it? With God’s help, yes. We must trust our faith over our fear. Let us pray for the grace of an Anam Cara, a sacred friend in our lives, to be part of our experience, in doing this work. We can be grateful for Anam Caras, who are Jesus-extenders and Apostles. Gifts from God via the Spirit. AMEN June 11, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
This is Trinity Sunday, a day we celebrate God in three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Or, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. Or, Earth–maker, Pain-bearer, and Life-giver. Or, Lover, Beloved, and Love. Even that tiny, brief exercise reminds us that it is impossible to fully capture the ultimate mystery that is God with our limited, finite minds and our limited language so we have Scripture stories, rituals, music, art and symbols, analogy, metaphor, poetry and yes, doctrines, to try to get our finite minds and hearts around an infinite reality.
Knowing that all these things, all the ways we try to express and grasp the infinite are but fingers pointing at the moon according to the Zen tradition. Fingers pointing at the moon, the danger is that we tend to focus on the fingers and miss the moon to which they point. It’s about the moon, not the fingers. It’s about God and not the doctrines.
Pianist Artur Schnabel once said, “Great music is music that is better than it can ever be played.” God is the music, we are the players, and while we can release the mystery in our play, the music is always beyond, always more. Our language about God will always fall short, but we can know and experience the mystery we call God in a whole host of ways.
We can know God through creation and today we heard the marvelous first creation story from the Book of Genesis. How the world and how human beings came to be is important but it’s imperative to remember that this is not a scientific account. If you want to know the science of creation, the ‘how’ of creation, talk to the scientists. If you want to know the theology, the ‘why’ of creation, immerse yourself in the powerful stories of Genesis, chapters one and two.
In the beginning we are told there was only a formless void, only darkness and chaos. No order, no life until the creator brought light into the darkness. Bang. Light, the source of life, and then a progression from simple elements like water and earth to more complex, the plants, birds, sea creature and animals. Creator God brought life out of nothing and it was and is good. All of it is a reflection of the creator, a glimpse of who the creator is.
Anne Lamott, in writing about the mystery of God said, “I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees.” Yes, to understand and behold the marvelous gift that is the created world around us is to understand and behold the Creator, God. Creation points to the creator.
We get a glimpse of God in the beauty and wonder of the world around us, but not only out there. Today’s creation story crescendos when creator God steps back to behold the wonder of the created universe as an artist might step back to behold her beautiful painting and then God says, “I think I’ll paint myself into the scene.”
In the midst of the flowers and the redwoods and the birds and plants and animals, I’m going to put myself in, God says and we hear Genesis chapter 1, verses 26 and 27. “Then God said, Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness. . . so God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them, male and female.” Created in the image and likeness of God, we are God’s works of art. We are given the gift of the created world to care for and protect so that it might sustain the life that God brought into existence, and given the gift of each other to care for, to protect and to love so that God’s kingdom might come to earth. The creation story is true, it teaches us the truth of God forming our beautiful world out of nothing and making it good, and the truth of who we are, the beloved children of God, made in God’s image and likeness and given this beautiful world and each other to care for and protect.
Jesus, God in the flesh, came along to remind us, to teach us, how we are to live and how we are to love because we so often forget. Jesus never talked about the Trinity, or original sin, or the incarnation, or any other doctrine that preoccupied his people later on. Jesus went around doing good and being compassionate, and in so doing showed us what God wants. His presence, his love, remains with us in the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, the love between Father and Son which spills over and fills the whole earth.
We celebrate the Trinity, God in three persons, today. We attempt to name the One who is beyond naming and yet is very real all around us in the beauty of the earth and in our simple acts of goodness and loving kindness. May we know God and make God known. Amen
May 28, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
Up, up and away. (A red balloon was released and rose to the ceiling.) That’s how it went for Jesus on his Ascension Day according to the Book of Acts, our first reading. It says: “When he had said this, as they were watching, He was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
Up, up, and away, and according to the reading the disciples just stood there, “gazing up toward heaven” like what do we do now? He’s gone, what do we do now? Jesus has returned to the Glory of His Heavenly Father, according to our Gospel reading. What do we do now?
Do you remember learning to ride a bike? You probably started with a tricycle, graduated to a bike with training wheels, then the training wheels came off and mom or dad ran alongside holding the handlebar and the back of the seat. Holding on to the bike helped you keep it balanced, helped you learn to balance and steer and stop until that glorious day when they let go. “You’ve got it,” they yelled, “You can do it,” and you ride off, balancing, steering and laughing. Or you fell over in a puddle of tears, but you got up and tried again.
I love to see the little kids on the ski hill, tethered to a parent with a rope to help them find balance, make the turns, and learn to stop. One day the rope comes off and “you can do it”, “you’ve learned”, “you are on your own now”. Or a new driver, gulp, you start in the parking lot, at the cemetery, go slow, learn to steer and stop, back up, move to city streets and then the highway. As a guide you are always there, but eventually you’ll give her the keys and she’ll be on her own. She’s ready. This is what’s happening with Jesus and His Ascension into heaven.
He’s saying to his disciples and to us, you’re ready, you’ve got this. I’ve taught you well, I’ve set the example I want you to follow. I’ve showed you how to treat each other, how to show mercy, how to forgive, be compassionate and to love. It’s up to you now. I have shown you the way, follow me.
The Ascension of Jesus, His return to the Heavenly Father in Glory, gives us responsibility to care for each other and to care for the earth. Jesus has shown us how to ride the bike, helped us steer and balance. He has shown us how to make our way down the ski hill, how to safely drive. Now he’s given us the keys. Like any good parent, he’s always there to support, listen, guide and pick up the pieces, but it’s up to us now. “You’re prepared,” “You’re ready,” Jesus says. Go and do as I have taught you. Use your heart and your hands and feet and voices to live the love that I came to bring. Spread it to the ends of the earth.
Use your brains to make the world a better place, this is a Sacred Trust. Our friend, John Pastor, is a scientist and a person of deep faith. He recently wrote an article on caring for Nature in which he said: “God gave us the brains to understand how Creation works. I like to think that when we figure out a piece of how God’s Creation works, it gives God great joy: I have a vision of God smiling whenever someone is learning something new about Creation and saying to the angels: Hey, look! They figured that one out.”
God gives us the intellect and the skills and the will to figure out how our world works so that we might better understand, respect and preserve it. God delights when that happens. God gives us hearts to feel the pain of others and to respond with compassion. God gives us hands to work for justice and peace so that God’s kingdom will come to us here and how; this is a Sacred Trust.
Christ instructs and guides us, like a parent teaching a child to ride a bike or ski or drive a car. The Gospels give us his teaching and show us his example so now it’s up to us to live and love as he has shown us so our world will be more just, compassionate, merciful and loving.
Up, up and away. Jesus has ascended into heaven but He remains close to us, as close as our hands, our minds, our hearts and our voices. He fills our world through us.
Let us pray, May we always realize your presence in our midst, O Risen Lord, as we struggle to go forth and do the work you have left us: to teach others, in the example of our lives, your Gospel of forgiveness and compassion, to restore to our world the peace and justice of your Father’s kingdom, to bring all nations and people together under your commandment of love.
May 21, 2017 The Rev. Dr. Barbara Elliott
More than 100 years ago, Leo Tolstoy wrote a story that I would like to share with you this morning. The story is titled “The Three Questions” and is about a boy’s (Nickoli’s) desire to learn how he could be a good person…he wanted to be a really good person. He found himself asking three questions of his friends as he tried to figure it out: 1. When is the best time to do things? 2. Who is the most important? 3. What is the right thing to do? His friends all gave different answers—and their answers all focused on helping themselves be fed, happy, and secure.
Nickoli was not satisfied with their answers, so he went to visit the old friend, who he thought would have the wisdom he was seeking. Nickoli found the Old One digging a garden—slowly and methodically. Nickoli offered to help while they talked, and in the end Nickoli finished the garden digging just as a storm hit. Nickoli and the Old One went into the hut for protection, but heard a call for help outside. Nickoli went to the rescue and brought the injured animal back to the hut for care. It turned out, the injured animal had a baby left in the woods too—so Nickoli returned during the storm to save the baby too.
All of this happened while Nickoli was still trying to find the answers to his questions. The next morning, the storm had passed and the animals left the hut. Nickoli turned to the Old One with the same questions, asking again for the answers that he felt would help him be the person he wanted to be. The Old One answered: you have already discovered and are living the answers to your questions… When you arrived you immediately helped me complete the garden work that I was struggling to do. That was the most important thing to do, because of the storm that was coming—and time was of the essence. Then we heard the calls for help: you went immediately to care for the one who was injured, and her baby. You rescued them both.
You already know and are living the answers to your questions: 1) Now is the time to do what needs to be done; 2) Who is most important is the person you are with; and 3) The right thing to do is to do good for that person, as best you can...
Leo Tolstoy’s story has important lessons for us all—he helps us each interpret our daily experiences in light of the flow of our days and the needs of the people we encounter. You and I are regularly finding someone who we help with their projects as we talk with them, knowing that they are important in our lives and that we want to help as we can… Think back to your day, Friday or yesterday—how does this story parallel your experiences?
It is interesting to me that it is a story that repeats the advice in today’s readings, especially the ones in Peter and John. Peter tells us to “do the right thing, even if [we] must suffer some hardship when we are doing it.” That would leave me with Nickoli’s question: what is the right thing to do—which is also answered in the story…
John’s Gospel also brings us back to the story too: John quotes Jesus as promising his and the Spirit’s presence to those who keep his commandment to love and serve one another and God. That brings me to Nickoli’s questions, too: how do I love and serve my neighbors and God? By doing exactly what Nickoli was doing—first, by being focused on what is happening now; second by being present to the ones we are with, and third, by helping them with what they need.
So…with Tolstoy and Nickoli’s help, it is easier for us to know how we might work to meet Jesus’ commandment. But that does not mean it is easy to love one another…or to get through what happens to us.
As was evident in Nickoli’s story, both the Old One and the injured one were struggling and needed help. We each take our turn in that place, too. Our stories of how we got through ‘those times’ are like theirs—we needed and got help from people who were with us. It is interesting to note too, that sometimes sharing those stories of “How we lived through that” can be really helpful for someone else too. It is also important to notice/observe that when Nickoli was searching for answers to his troubled questions, he went to the Old One for advice. Seeking wise counsel from a trusted advisor is another piece of good advice—again, God’s creation holds clues and cues for us on how to love one another.
Today’s Gospel also adds another insight to this observation regarding seeking advice and sharing love. In today’s Gospel, Jesus told his disciples that there would be an Advocate with them into the future—an energy that would come to help and assist them. We have come to understand and name this Advocate as “The Holy Spirit”— the energy that serves both to keep us performing/meeting the answers to The Three Questions, as well as to serve as companions and advisors to one another. This energy, the Spirit, accompanies us as we love one another...
Let us Pray: Oh Holy One, be with us as we serve those we meet, by being present to them when we are together, and by assisting those around us as we can. Life is short; we give thanks for these opportunities to love You and each other. AMEN May 14, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
On this fifth Sunday of the Easter Season our Gospel reading takes us back to the Last Supper. Jesus and his disciples are at the table and Jesus is preparing them for His departure. He will be with them only a little while longer, but Jesus will remain with them in Spirit as He goes to prepare a place for them, a place, a holy place.
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places,” Jesus says. Or, as our friend, Noreen, insisted last week, may mansions. “The King James says ‘many mansions,’ it’s supposed to be mansions,” she said. A place, dwelling place, mansion. Jesus assures his disciples that they will have a place in the life beyond this one, a place in heaven. This is a very familiar Gospel reading because we read it often at funerals as a reminder and an assurance that “when our lives here on earth have ended, there is prepared for us an eternal dwelling place in the heavens.”
Blessed Assurance - Streets paved with gold? The heavenly banquet feast? New and eternal life with God in a place more wonderful than our finite minds can imagine. The next place, a perfect place, we long for it, hope for it, pray for it, and count on it. We also experience it here and now, that sense of place, of being connected, of being complete, one with God and with each other.
Think about the places where this happens for you, the holy places. Perhaps it’s at the dinner table gathered together with the whole family, you have your place at the table and you are connected with each other, in love. It’s a holy place. Perhaps your place of communion is in a fishing boat on a lake (there are a few people there today), or on a sailboat. Some of my happiest memories as a child are of fishing with my dad in the boat, on the lake, one with him, one with God. A holy place.
Maybe your communion place is a quiet corner of your house, or a spot in the woods, or the front porch of the cabin. Perhaps you feel most alive and connected on the soccer field or on the ice, or in the choir. All places of communion with God and others, Holy Places here in this world. Communion that awaits us in the next life; that we can know here and now when we are one with God and each other.
Place, the importance of place. There’s nothing worse than feeling out of place. As we journey through this life we long for and seek out and create these holy places. Places of communion with God and each other at dinner tables and on the lake and in concert halls and most especially here in this place, here in church. Where heaven reaches down and touches earth, where we pray our prayers and sing our praises, and seek forgiveness and share the peace and receive the flesh and blood of the living God, and know we are beloved. Here, in this holy place, we seek communion with God and each other.
We practice seeing the world as God sees it and seeing ourselves as God sees us. Given the gift of Jesus Christ we receive a taste of the kingdom of heaven, the place that awaits us on the other side. Here, in this place we practice, we rehearse, for the life with God in the heavenly kingdom that awaits us.
I came across a wonderful piece entitled “On Habit” written by a woman named Michelle C. Sanchez. It seems Michelle was having a very difficult time. She had just begun teaching and it was very stressful, her father died suddenly, she was unexpectedly evicted from her apartment, her mom got breast cancer and Michelle was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue. No one would have blamed her if she skipped church, but Michelle played the piano and her church needed someone to play. She writes:
“The church I attend is not a wealthy one, so it is difficult to find a skilled musician who is willing to work dependably for what we can pay.” I grew up playing the piano in church. It’s a skill that comes easily to me. It’s something I enjoy. Thanks to my day job I don’t need extra cash. Still, the most stressful year of my life seems like a strange time to take on a pro bono side gig as a church musician.
“In many ways, though, it was precisely that additional ‘job’ that saved my sanity during such a hard year. There were so many weeks that it would have been tempting just to sleep in or to spend those hours on Sunday with Netflix, in order to simply rest. But I couldn’t, because I had to be there. There had to be music, and, in subtle ways that I didn’t appreciate at the time, being in that space meant being surrounded by loved ones, by people . . .whose lives and struggles were also drastically different from my own. Being in that simple sanctuary every week ,under the arch ceiling, before the cross, surrounded by the hum of friendly chaos, furnished me with a broader and more robust sense of self by de-centering my own central importance.
“When I played that music, my body became a conduit through which the bonds between all of the people gathered there – old and young, poor and less poor, every shade of tan and brown – grew stronger as we sang together. While I wasn’t fully aware of it at the time, the experience of sharing music with others turned out to be what I needed most during a time when everything else felt uncertain and shaky.”
Michelle had a taste of the kingdom of God in church, in music, in a heavenly chorus. Drawn beyond her personal struggles and the illusion of being the center of the universe, she experienced communion with God and others. She caught a glimpse of the place that awaits us in the life beyond this one.
Jesus, the way, the truth and the life, has brought us to this holy place today. May we taste the goodness and love of the life to come. Amen
April 30, 2017 The Rev. Dr. Barbara Elliott
Easter Season—we know that Jesus is Risen… It is the central story about Jesus’ life on earth: Jesus died on the cross; God raised him from the dead; through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can experience God’s love that heals and sets us free. This is the story we are told and the story we have celebrated these past weeks…All of us know the story—it is the greatest mystery of our Christian heritage. Some of us believe it happened; some used to believe it; some of us really are not sure what to believe about the resurrection.
Today’s Gospel reading is the next part of the story, which describes how Jesus’ disciples responded when they knew that Jesus had died and his body had disappeared from the tomb where it had been laid. They were in shock. They were confused and without a sense of direction. So they began walking home, unsure about what else to do. Maybe they were going to pick up their lives where they had left off before they met Jesus—to be fisherman.
Sometimes our own experiences reveal how true the stories in scripture really are. Sometimes we each are at as much of a loss as these two Disciples when they were walking toward Emmaus. When was the last time you experienced such a loss that you were ‘just going through the motions’ of life, on autopilot, doing only what you knew needed to be done? Perhaps it was a death, or loss of a relationship, or a dream that was lost. Then we grieve—it is exhausting, and takes a long time to work through. There is no bouncing back; we are forever changed.
Our lives are full of these deep losses—we do live in a Good Friday world. When it happens to us, we walk in confusion and weep, just as these two Disciples did on their way to Emmaus.
We read in today’s Gospel that when these two were walking, a third joined them, who wondered what they were talking about. The Disciples were so distraught--they needed someone hear their story and help them understand what was happening. After hearing their story, the stranger explained how what had happened to their friend had actually fit with the predictions of the prophets, as recorded in sacred texts. These conversations with the stranger provided a way for the Disciples to understand that Jesus’ suffering and death were necessary parts of life in God’s plan, and that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ. Oh, and it is important to note, that the Disciples didn’t recognize the stranger—they were not ready to see that it was Jesus who had joined them.
Which brings us back to our lives and experiences when we are walking because we have no sense of what else to do. You and I have both been there—in a deep grief over an agonizing loss. We each respond with our own version of the Disciples’ ‘long walk’. As you think about your experiences and how your story unfolded, you probably recall when someone showed up and walked with you. The people who show up can help us see our circumstances in a new way—help us better understand what is happening. Maybe they are members of a 12-Step group, or a friend, or a counselor, or a child…any of these (and others!). In any case, they serve as God’s messengers, and are angels for us when we need them.
Finally we experience the moment of revelation, when we ‘see’ things in a new light and are truly healing. Gradually we see a future and regain a sense of hope. There is room for love in our lives again. The past no longer overwhelms our days or controls our fear.
As Albert Schweitzer said: “Sometimes our light goes out, but it is blown again into instant flame by an encounter with another human being. Each of us owes the deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this inner light.” Perhaps you are like me, and when you were walking, likely didn’t recognize that person—or those people—who Schweitzer is describing. These people become sacred friendships; these are the friends who have walked with us through the hardest times.
You and I do have these Easter experiences of loss and renewal, over and over again, as we experience losses and rebuild our lives, carrying the history into the future. We learn that we can build a future, with God’s help.
This brings me back, and perhaps you too, to better understanding the story of Jesus’ resurrection as it is told in Scripture. I recognize the ways I have experienced deaths and losses, and then been given life on the other side, through a power that is not my own. God’s healing Grace was essential—and it was gifted to me by people I have met when I needed them. In fact, some of you have been important participants in these experiences over time.
This experience of horrible loss and healing didn’t just happen to the Disciples; it happens to us, too. These experiences on the Road to Emmaus remind me, and each of us, that when our life is shaken to its center, we need to stay on the path, trusting that the power of God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, is there to sustain us.
Let us pray: Loving God, so many times in our lives we are like the Disciples walking to Emmaus. Lord, give us the strength to continue on when we find ourselves lost and on unfamiliar paths. Help us to trust in you and to remember that you know the way. AMEN
April 16, 2017 Easter Sunday The Rev. Bill Van Oss “Christ is Alive,” that’s the Easter proclamation that we shout and sing this Easter Day! “Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.” That’s the message that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary delivered so long ago. Today we focus and tell the story of this great miracle that happened a long time ago, in our Gospel reading, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ resurrection.
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to see the tomb where Jesus was laid after He died on the cross and there’s a great earthquake and an angel from heaven who tells the women that Jesus has been raised from the dead. They meet Him, and Jesus tells them to go and share this great, Good News that He is alive. “The Lord is Risen Indeed.”
It happened a long time ago, right? Mary Magdalene and the other Mary saw it, right? Yes. But here’s the thing, and this is important, really, really important. Ready? It didn’t just happen then, it happens now, it happens to us, here and now. Resurrection, new life, happens to us today because He’s alive, His love lasts forever. His love lives!
There was a great story in The Christian Century magazine a couple of months ago. A woman named Mary Poole, who lives in Missoula, Montana, saw the picture of the three year-old Syrian boy who had drowned trying to reach Turkey with his family. The photo of the little boy lying on the beach haunted Mary and she decided she had to do something.
She gathered her friends and made phone calls to organizations that resettle refugees and she formed Soft Landing Missoula to help welcome immigrants. It was not all easy sailing, when Soft Landing appeared before the city council to propose their plan protesters came out in force. Volunteers, city leaders and clergy who supported immigrants received death threats. But they carried on and welcomed 12 refugee families to Missoula, helping them find housing and employment and helping them to acclimate to their new home.
Despite the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim climate, Soft Landing continue to find people willing to help. “Yes, we’re received death threats,” Mary says “But for every one of those there are 30 volunteers. Alleluia, Christ is Risen. Christ is alive in Mary Poole and the good people of Missoula, Montana who are reaching across borders to help people in need, even in the face of death.
This is a powerful resurrection story. A story of love overcoming hatred and fear and, yes, even death is a resurrection story. The story of Christ’s resurrection teaches us the most important lesson of all, even though the power of hatred, sin and fear could kill Jesus’ body, they could not kill the love and that love lives today.
Christ is alive is Soft Landing Missoula. Christ is alive when someone shows up at the doors of a Loaves and Fishes house, right outside out doors on Jefferson Street, and is welcomed and given a safe, warm place to stay. Christ is alive when people are fed at the Damiano Center. Christ is alive when an elder is cared for and knows she is not alone. Christ is alive when people are visited in the hospital. Christ is alive when people reconcile after being at odds, after not speaking to each other. Christ is alive when I overhead two teenagers talking and one is distressed that she just doesn’t understand a math assignment and the other says, “I can help you at lunch time.” Christ is alive when we are grateful enough to give generously to a cause, give to something that lasts even beyond our lifetime. Christ is alive when the walls created by seeing others as “those people” are broken down, and we see that there are just people, God’s beloved people. Christ is alive when we live out our baptismal promises, our Christian values, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, justice, love and peace. When we care about each other in a world where it’s everyone for themselves.
It was the Trappist monk Basil Pennington who said, “You are a Christian. You are Risen with Christ. Show me what this means for you in your life and I will believe.” Show it, live it, and Christ is alive today and every day.
Whenever you find joy and wonder there is resurrection. Whenever you follow Christ’s call into a larger and more glorious life there is resurrection. Whenever you see people loving and serving there is resurrection.
It’s a great story, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the faithful women, the earthquake, the angel and Christ Himself. It happened a long, long time ago and it happens today. It happened in Missoula, Montana, and on Jefferson Street and on 4th Street and at Lakeshore. It happens in our homes and in our schools and in our churches.
It happens when we live out the love that overcame death on that first Easter Day. “Christ is alive, let Christians sing.” “His Spirit burns through this and every future age, till all creation lives and learns his joy, his justice, love and praise.” Alleluia, Amen.
April 14, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss, Rector
Good Friday Meditation Were you there when they crucified my Lord? This question, from the classic African American and oft sung spiritual (that we just sang) is rather strange, if you think about it. Were you there? Was I there? Of course not. It happened more than 2,000 years ago. None of us were there.
But have we seen it? Have we witnessed Christ crucified? Oh, yes… Remember that Were You There is an African American spiritual. It was sung first by people who watched as their husband, their wife, their father, mother, sister, brother, child was beaten, scourged, slapped, kicked and, yes, hung on a tree. Lynched. Even here in Duluth…
When they sang: were you there? They weren’t just talking about what happened so long ago to Jesus. They were singing about what was happening to them each and every day. Christ crucified again in their humiliation, suffering and death. “Were you there?” Oh, yes, we were there when he was lynched. We were there. Christ – love – was crucified again. And He’s crucified again and again in our world, today:
When the Mexican-American mother is deported, leaving her children behind. Christ is crucified again. When GLBTQ people are mocked and threatened and yes – sometimes even killed – because of who they are. Christ is crucified again.
When the child is so bullied at school and through social media that she thinks the only way out is to take her own life. Christ is crucified again.
When the world stand silent while genocide by starvation occurs in South Sudan. Christ is crucified again.
When we selfishly pollute the good earth that God has given us to make a dollar. Christ is crucified again.
Every time we think or talk about “those” people, as if there are superior and inferior kinds of people. Christ is crucified again.
When we live in our own little worlds, blind to human need and suffering. Christ is crucified again.
When some of our elected leaders seems almost gleeful about eliminating or reducing program that help the most vulnerable among us survive. Christ is crucified again.
Were you there? No – not on Calvary’s hill so long ago, but we see Christ crucified in our world today. But here’s the thing: the cross is not the end of the story, because they could kill Jesus’ body, but they could not kill love. His love lives – in us – and it has the power to change the world, one hurting soul at a time.
April 13, 2017 The Rev. Dr. Barbara Elliott
Maundy Thursday Jesus taught and modeled inner authority and spiritual power, not the usual human, or Roman approach of imposed and coercive power. Jesus’ power is inclusive and moves hearts. It is Grace incarnate.
Maundy Thursday—the last time Jesus gathered with his Disciples. The description of these events in our Gospel reading paints a careful picture, and this image is worth a thousand words. We learn that Jesus demonstrated his love and his authority by washing the disciples’ feet. There is no more comforting—or revolutionary—role for a King! All of us are humbled by the thought of someone washing our feet…so we relate easily to the disciples who were amazed, and even wanted to refuse to allow Jesus to wash their feet!
As we also know from the Gospel reading, Jesus knew it was the last time they would be together. And he had told the Disciples that was what was happening, too, although they didn’t understand or truly know what was coming. Jesus was trying one final time, to prepare the disciples for living into the future without his physical presence—building a life on faith rather than presence.
In fact Jesus went beyond making a request of them for their continuing work after his death. He commanded that they love one another, just as he had loved them. He summarized all his teachings with that statement, and the Latin verb used to describe this comment is “mandatum”, which translates as a commandment. It provides the reason this day is known as Maundy Thursday—Command Thursday.
Since Jesus knew that the disciples were still not clear about what he meant, Jesus literally showed them what he meant. That is when he hiked up his outer robe, knelt down, and washed their dirty, worn, tired feet. He showed them what love looked like: love is lived in active service of those you love. This level of caring is healing and sustaining—as their relationship with him had been.
With this action, Jesus demonstrated how God’s love, power, and authority are ‘reversed,’ compared to the human world. When Jesus washed their feet, he taught and modeled inner authority and spiritual power, not the usual human or Roman approach of imposed and coercive power. This turned his relationship with the Disciples upside down. The Jesus they knew was their teacher and master; when he washed their feet, he became their servant.
It is important to also note that he washed everyone’s feet, extending this hospitality and love to Judas who would betray him. It is an amazing detail in the story—but one with huge lessons—that Judas was included. It reminds me that we need to think carefully about what we are doing, when we find ourselves excluding someone…
With this act, Jesus’ showed us all how we are to live his commandment that we love one another: we care for and serve each other’s needs.
That evening, Jesus washed their feet, had their meal together, and gave them his final guidance, all the while knowing the violence and injustice that humans would impose on him in the coming hours.
And so here we are on Maundy Thursday. Jesus’ teachings are especially poignant: we recall and relive his example tonight. We honor his teachings—his commandment—from his last day with his Disciples. We wash one another’s feet.
As we go forward, we live and strive to live as he has taught us. We do this today, knowing the story that we remember and re-experience through the next three days, a story of violence and injustice that humans like us did to Jesus.
We remember this story of these three days, while we strive to serve one another—to love one another as commanded—every day, despite the inhumanity and injustice that continue as part of our worldly life. Loving one another as Jesus loved us, is inclusive and moves hearts. It is living God’s Grace. AMEN
April 9, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
There is a tradition, I’m not sure when or where it started, but this tradition says there should be no sermon on Palm Sunday when we hear about Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. The idea being we should let the Gospel speak for itself. What mere mortals’ words can compare to the profound truths the Passion Narrative conveys?
But I wonder, I wonder if it’s something else? It’s a long Gospel and we need to be sensitive to time. It’s the beginning of Holy Week with lots of other services and preaching. Maybe it’s something else, something deeper and a bit discomforting. I wonder if it’s because we are afraid of sacrifice and suffering.
The story of Jesus’ trial and execution is filled with physical suffering, flogging, crowning with thorns, nails through wrists and ankles, hours of agony and the suffering of humiliation and abundant mocking and dying virtually alone. It’s a difficult story to listen to and to imagine the tremendous suffering and sacrifice. God freely laying down his life for all to save us through great suffering.
It’s a mystery that’s difficult for our finite minds to grasp so let’s not talk about it; suffering and sacrifice. We want to feel good, to be happy, especially when we are in church.
It you have ever traveled to Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa or other places and visited the churches, you may have noticed statues and artwork that come across as harsh, even gory. Large crosses with Jesus’ body on them, blood running down his cheeks, arms, and legs, gash in his side. Or seen the Pietà, the lifeless body of Jesus draped in his mother’s arms; a mother loves her child. Or paintings and mosaics of Jesus’ anguished face, his head crowned with thorns.
These kinds of depictions are common in other parts of the world because a God who suffered and sacrificed is appealing to people who suffer and sacrifice every day just to survive. It makes sense to them, it comforts them to know that Jesus went through it too, and Jesus is with them in their suffering; that God has entered into their suffering, sacrificed everything for them.
There is a lot of suffering in the world and not just somewhere else. People all around suffer from sickness, loss, violence, broken relationships, lack of basic necessities, loneliness, greed and fear. Today’s Gospel is a stark reminder that God has entered into our suffering. God, in Jesus, has taken our human form and taken on human suffering even to the point of the cross which is a powerful reminder that God understand, God cares, and God is with us in our suffering because God has also been there.
The cross does not have the last word, love has the last word. The story of Jesus’ death teaches us that though they killed His body, they could not kill His love and that love lives, through us God’s love reaches out to those who are hurting, those who are suffering, and brings healing and strength. God’s love for the hurting flows through us.
Let us not run from this story of sacrifice and suffering. Let us embrace it as the ultimate truth about who God is, and who we are called to be.
April 2, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss “Awake, O sleeper, arise from death and Christ will give you life.”
We’ve had the series of very long Gospel readings this Lent. Two weeks ago was Jesus’ lengthy conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. Last week Jesus’ long encounter with the man born blind, and today Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead.
One of the challenges with lengthy Gospel passages is not missing important details because we get caught up in all the dialogue, characters, and shifting scenes. We can’t miss the details because they are so important to the meaning. I would point out two details that we cannot miss in today’s Lazarus Gospel. The first is verse 35, just four words; a simple four-word verse that might reveal more about Jesus than anything else. “Jesus began to weep.”
Jesus cried because of the sadness He saw in people He loved like Martha and Mary. Jesus wept because He loved Lazarus very, very much, too. Jesus wept over a world where lives are cut short and people feel alone and afraid. That simple verse, “Jesus began to weep”, shows us, perhaps, more than anything else that Jesus was fully human. He experienced every human emotion that we experience and He shares in our grieving as He shared in Martha’s and Mary’s. Jesus was fully human.
The second detail I would point to is near the end of today’s passage. After being moved to tears, Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb. Jesus prays and then He says, “Lazarus, come out!” When Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead in another place in the Gospels He took her by the hand and lifted her up, but not with Lazarus. Jesus stood outside the tomb and called him, “Lazarus, come out!” giving Lazarus the choice to hear the call to new life and to respond by following it or to ignore it, roll over and stay there.
Rolling over is what Jan Richardson suggests in a little reflection she wrote in The Painted Prayerbook. She writes: I wonder if it gave Lazarus pause. I wonder if Lazarus, stirring in his four-day tomb and beginning to feel the grave clothes weighing on his waking skin, had to take a moment to consider. When he heard that cry from beyond the threshold of his tomb; when he awoke to that voice, beloved but already growing strange to ears that had begun to settle into silence; when that command came and challenged the dead calm of the grave, did Lazarus give a thought to staying put? It cannot have been easy, feeling the pulse of life tickle at the flesh already loosening from his limbs. Was he tempted to simply roll over and turn his face toward the wall so that he could continue his slide into decay?
Nobody goes into the tomb to pull Lazarus out; no one crosses into his realm to haul him to this side of living. Lazarus has to choose whether he will loose himself from the hold of the grave: its hold on him, his hold on it.
Only when Lazarus takes a deep and deciding breath, rises, returns back across the boundary between the living and the dead: only then does Jesus say to the crowd, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Not until Lazarus makes his choice does the unwinding of the shroud begin, and the grave clothes fall away. Richardson suggests Lazarus had a choice, ignore Jesus’ call and stay in the tomb or listen and respond and return to life.
I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my dad three years ago. My mother had died four years before that and her death was very hard on my dad. He lost not only his spouse of more than sixty years but he said, “I lost my best friend.” So I was visiting him three years ago and in a quiet moment over coffee in the morning, I asked, “How are you doing dad?” and without hesitating he looked at me and said, “I’ve decided I want to live.”
He went on to explain that he had been through a stage where he was not sure, not that he was going to take his life, but he felt like he was stuck in grief and sadness and just spending too much time sitting around feeling sorry for himself. He made the decision then that he wanted to live, to forge a new identity, to get out and be active and engage with people again, to give back in any way he could.
Out of the tomb of his grief and sadness into a new life, not that he doesn’t still grieve, but he’s embraced new life and a new way of living As someone once said, coping with death is one thing, coping with life is another.
But new life happens for people who struggle with addiction who choose to enter treatment and recovery and practice a new way of living. Many talk about getting their ‘life’ back. Out of the tomb, unbound by substances, they can live again.
New life happens for people who come out after hiding some aspect of their identity, now honest about who they are they can truly live. Out of the tomb into new life.
New life happens for people diminished by illness, injury, age, called forth from the tomb of “I can’t do what I could before” or what others can do, they see that there are other things, new ways of living or fulfilling life out of the tomb into new life.
Important details in today’s Gospel - Jesus weeping and in doing so showing us the fullness of His humanity and His sharing in our humanity, and Jesus calling Lazarus out of the tomb reminding us that God calls us from cold, dark places into the light of new and everlasting life, reminding us, showing us that new life happens. Take to heart the song, Awake, O Sleeper, arise from death and Christ will give you life.
March 26, 2017 The Rev. Dr. Barbara Elliott
"Like the unexpected call of a friend, just when you need it most, grace arrives unannounced. A door opens. A path becomes clear. An answer presents itself. The right person walks into your life…These thousand silent streams, the movement of grace, weave through our lives, protecting, nurturing, supporting, transforming us from helpless to hopeful, giving us the tools to craft change, revealing a different future…Grace is the Spirit's art: each one designed uniquely, shaped to fit perfectly, given in beauty, received in wonder. Grace is what it feels like to be touched by God."
Indeed—Grace, God’s Grace, is what Steve Charleston is describing with these words, and God’s Grace is what our readings are all about this morning. These readings use the metaphor of seeing and blindness to convey these messages about God’s grace. In Samuel, David’s father and Samuel were both unable to recognize David’s eligibility to be anointed King—he was perceived to be too young and inexperienced, with too much dirt under his fingernails, for their human eyes to see. But God knew David’s heart and pointed out their blindness, when God said, “This is the one.” With that, Samuel stepped forward, bringing God’s Grace unannounced and unexpectedly, to transform David’s life.
In today’s Gospel, there is another example of God’s Grace. Jesus unexpectedly touches a blind man’s life. The blind man was not praying for a miracle to happen; he did not ask Jesus to help him. He was just sitting there. Jesus was in conversation with his Disciples about why bad things happen—something we talk about too—and observed that this man was not blind because of anything he or his parents had done—it was not their sin that lead to the blindness. Instead, the man was blind so God’s Grace could happen—and be demonstrated to the world.
The story is truly dramatic: imagine being there! The blind man sat minding his own business, when someone who he could not see, came to him and spread mud on his face. He was then told to go to the Pool of Shiloh to wash—and I can only imagine what it must have been like when he washed the mud away and opened his eyes. Perhaps the first thing he saw was his own face in the reflection! He “came back able to see,” saying, “Lord, I believe!” God’s Grace had transformed his life.
“Grace is what it feels like to be touched by God,” are the words Steven Charleston uses to finish his thought. Samuel had touched David’s life with God’s Grace, and Jesus had touched this man’s suffering, demonstrating God’s Grace.
Which brings us to today, and the opportunity to reflect on our own spiritual blind spots. Like Samuel, we have plenty—personally and as a society: When we put ourselves before others, we are blind. When we hold grudges and refuse to forgive, we are blind. When we do what is easy, instead of what is right, we are blind. Our communities and our politics turn blind eyes too: economic, social and political decisions turn blind eyes to the poor, the sick, and the suffering.
And who among us has not experienced suffering at one point or another? Depression, anxiety, abuse, neglect, broken relationships, illness, lost jobs, fear—the list goes on, and plagues our communities too. Life can be messy, and none of us is immune.
Of course, it is easy to hope that our faith will end our suffering and blindness, and make our hurts and pains disappear. But the hard truth is that this simply isn’t so. As Lent teaches us, suffering and blindness are inescapable parts of being human… Instead, our suffering, like the blind man’s, is our opportunity to receive God’s Grace.
What blindness lives inside you today? God knows our sufferings and uses them as doors for Grace, to soothe our wounds. Along the way, God also uses each of us from time-to-time, to help others, too—we are sources of God’s Grace for those around us and for our communities.
As we live into this next week, notice how God’s Grace is active in your world. Who is bringing it to you? And how is God using you to bring Grace to others?
As we close, let me again share Steven Charleston’s wisdom: "Like the unexpected call of a friend, just when you need it most, grace arrives unannounced. A door opens. A path becomes clear. An answer presents itself. The right person walks into your life…These thousand silent streams, the movement of grace, weave through our lives, protecting, nurturing, supporting, transforming us from helpless to hopeful, giving us the tools to craft change, revealing a different future…Grace is the Spirit's art: each one designed uniquely, shaped to fit perfectly, given in beauty, received in wonder. Grace is what it feels like to be touched by God." AMEN
March 19, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
“Shepherd of Souls, refresh and bless.”
It’s a simple equation, water equals life and no water equals death. Our bodies need water to survive; we can go only a few days without it. Our bodies are made up of mostly water, by some estimates more than sixty percent. We here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes are spoiled. We are surrounded by water, that big, beautiful expanse of it sits right out our doors - three quadrillion gallons of fresh water and we might take it for granted, our fresh, clean drinkable water. We dump it on our lawns and wash our cars and mindlessly let the faucet run while we brush our teeth at the same time so many places in the world lack clean drinking water. Millions of people are threatened by drought, pollution, depleted lakes and aquifers.
This is a serious problem because water equals life and no water equals death. We need to learn to pay attention and work to protect our water. Last Wednesday was World Water Day. This Wednesday, Thursday and Friday St. Paul’s will host a Trinity Institute conference entitled Water Justice where we will learn, and pay attention and find out what we can do to preserve and protect the water because water is life.
Scripture speaks a lot about water. In the story of creation God brings the land from the waters of chaos. The Spirit of God moved over the deep in the first moment of creation. Noah sailed on the stormy waters of the Great Flood. The people Israel passed through the waters of the Red Sea into the wilderness which was an uninhabited desert. People couldn’t live there because there was no water.
In today’s first reading from Exodus the people complain to Moses, are you going to let us die of thirst out here? Water equals life and no water equals death. Moses prays and is told to strike the rock and water flows from it; the people have life. They see the water as a life-saving gift from God, a living sign of God’s presence in their midst. God came to them in the form of living, flowing water.
In today’s Gospel a chance encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. She came to get water, that was the woman’s job and still is in many places. Most of the women went to fetch water in groups because there’s safety in numbers and it’s a good chance to socialize. They carried their water early in the morning when it was cool.
This Samaritan woman is alone and she’s getting water at noon, in the heat of the day. She’s an outcast among outcasts. A Samaritan woman shunned by the other women, shunned by the community; we’re not sure why but we find out she has a checkered past. She’s coming to get water because she’s thirsty and without it she will die.
Jesus breaks a host of cultural and religious laws. Jesus breaks down numerous boundaries that said men don’t talk to women they are not related to. Jews have nothing to do with Samaritans, and a righteous person should not associate with someone with ‘a past.’ Jesus breaks down these boundaries to offer her living water; living water, not the liquid H2O at the bottom of the well, but the waters of new life that truly satisfy.
Jesus treats her with dignity and respect. He helps her to know that she is precious in God’s eyes, that she matters; she has value and worth beyond measure, no matter her gender, nationality or past history. Jesus tells and shows her that she is loved and this is the living water for which she thirsts.
And it’s what we thirst for, too, isn’t it? The water of baptism helps us to remember God’s truth, that we are God’s beloved, that God dwells within us. We are made in God’s image and loved unconditionally, to know we are loved. This is what gives us value and worth. This is what gives us life. New life here in this world and eternal life in the world to come; the love of God in Jesus Christ.
There’s lots of water in this world, but most of it you cannot drink, it’s either filled with salt and makes you thirstier or it is polluted. There are also many ways to try to find acceptance, satisfaction, a sense of self (love.) There’s appearance, money, possessions, power, pleasure, but these things ultimately fail to satisfy, and like drinking salt water only make us thirstier.
Today as we look out at our marvelous three quadrillion gallon expanse of fresh water let us see it as a precious, life-giving gift from God that we need to work to protect. Let it remind us of the vast expanse of God’s life-giving love; longer, wider, and deeper even than Lake Superior. Love which we have received and which we are called to share, especially with those on the edges so that all may know the life-giving love of God.
March 5, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
“Do not be afraid, I am with you. I have called you each by name Come and follow Me I will bring you home I love you and you are mine”
Fittingly as we begin our forty days of Lent in today’s Gospel we hear the story of Jesus’ forty day retreat in the wilderness where He fasts and prays and confronts the voice of the tempter. The tempter asks, aren’t you hungry? Then make some bread, he says. Aren’t you powerful? Then show off, lord over people. Aren’t you afraid of sacrifice and suffering? Then go for privilege and popularity.
It’s important to remember that just before Jesus confronted the tempter in the wilderness He heard another voice, a different voice. Just before Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, Jesus had been baptized by John and immediately upon coming out of the water Jesus heard a voice from above. The voice of God, his heavenly Father said, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” You are my beloved, that’s what the voice said.
I was pondering this, pondering these competing voices Jesus heard, one telling him He was beloved, the other telling him to be afraid as I walked to St. Paul’s on Ash Wednesday morning. I like to walk from home when I can, it’s beautiful and it saves gas and the environment and it’s a wonderful time to reflect and pray. On Wednesday snow had fallen, the sky was grey, it was brisk and I made my way along reflecting on the competing voices that Jesus had heard. “You are beloved,” said the voice of God and “Be afraid,” the voice of the temper.
As I made my way along I was thinking how it was so much easier for Jesus because the voices were so clear, so direct. I was wishing God would be more direct with me. If only I could hear your voice, O God. Speak to me, I prayed. And then it happened, a voice from above, as clear as could be I heard, “Good morning.” I was startled and I looked up to see that it was a guy standing on the fire escape of the big house on the corner of 19th and 1st Street; a guy standing there in a robe having a smoke. “Good morning,” I said back to him and continued my journey having heard a voice from above.
Voices, voices, competing voices for Jesus and for us. The voice of God telling us that we are beloved; we are beloved children of God, made in God’s image and likeness. Other voices are telling us to be afraid; be afraid of not having enough, turn those stones into bread and store them up so you know you’ll have enough. Never mind your neighbor who might be hungry. Voices telling us to be afraid of “the other,” people who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or who come from different places. Voices telling us to fear them.
Voices telling us to divide the world into them and us, and to see them as a threat or as unworthy rather than seeing them as a brother or sister, a fellow beloved child of God. The tempter’s voice tries to get Jesus to reach for power and privilege and popularity as a way of easing his fears, to place his trust in the things of this world in order to find safely and security.
Jesus didn’t listen to the tempter’s voice because He had heard a higher calling, the One that told Him, “You are my beloved Son, my beloved child.” And we have received this higher calling. In the waters of baptism we claim our identity as beloved children of God. We know that this is who we are. We have God’s voice deep inside of us, and it is so much stronger than the shrill voices of fear and anger all around us.
There are many voices telling us to be afraid, fear the other, fear not having enough, fear threats seemingly all around, voices encouraging us to place our trust in things that will surely fail us, things that do not last, possessions, power and might, things of this world. Into this confusion of voices today the voice of God rings out - place your trust in me and my love. God says, “You are my beloved.” You are my beloved children do not be afraid for I am with you. I love you and you are mine. Amen.
February 26, 2017 The Rev. Barbara Elliott Transfiguration
This past May, I found myself on a paddle-rafting trip at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The view and the presence of the Colorado River took my breath away as I realized I was actually living in God’s imagination! When I was 12 years old, I had a similar experience in the Boundary Waters where I had the ‘aha’ that I was surrounded by –and part of—God’s creation. In both of these experiences, I found myself gasping as I came to terms with the amazing creation God has made.
You have also probably encountered something in God's creation that caused you to gasp, as well—and these experiences are indelibly etched in our souls’ memories. When was a time that you had an experience like this? A ‘mountain-top’ experience? These life experiences change our lives dramatically—we learn again how the world is framed in ways we hadn’t understood before. We come to know deeply about the fullness of God’s creation.
This is what happened for these disciples in today’s Gospel too: As we read, Jesus went to the mountain-top with James, John and Peter, where Jesus’ appearance changed, Moses and Elijah (e.g., the Law and the Prophets) joined Jesus, and God spoke to them, saying: “This is my beloved son; listen to him.” For the Disciples, I imagine this experience took their breath away. They were discovering that life in the presence of the Holy One brings constant surprises. Specifically, these events are called “the Transfiguration.” When this happened, the Disciples could no longer doubt that Jesus was doing God’s work! They knew that Jesus was divine, indeed, that Jesus was God’s son. The energy of this mountain-top experience was preparation for the Disciples to get through what was to come in Jerusalem. But first they needed to get down from the mountain. As we read in today’s Gospel, they were afraid and needed Jesus to regain his humanity in order to move ahead. So Jesus touched them and told them to “Get up and do not be afraid.” They could then trust their friend, and the awe they had gained grew to sustain them in the days ahead.
Like the Disciples, the light that we experience in our the mountaintop adventures stays with us, too. That light becomes the energy we need to handle what lies ahead in our lives, too. This light stays with us, providing the energy and hope we need to sustain our spirits.
Jesus’ Transfiguration story marks a transition in our church journey through the Seasons. Do you recognize these? You may have had them at your house, too—this is a palm from last year’s Palm Sunday. This is a palm frond we waved as we remembered Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the donkey. The palms waved then—last year—become part of this year’s church story. This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, when we begin Lent. We are going to create some of the ashes we will use this year now… We will use these ashes in our rituals on Wednesday.
Now we move forward into Lent, the time when we revisit Jesus’ experiences as he approached and arrived in Jerusalem. Lent invites us to consider how we might really live Jesus’ teaching that we love one another. This year, given our country’s chaotic circumstances, our Lenten invitation has both a personal and a community focus. I know my challenge these next weeks is become clearer for myself on how my Christian faith informs both my love of others, and my ways to express my resistance of the values and activities that can undermine that love. I want to learn how my faith can help me stand for what I believe and respond with love, not hate. I want to live the deep truths that can empower my hope.
How about you—what is it you hope to learn? Where are the ‘growing edges’ for you this Lent? You may be heading into Lent not having had an epiphany - that is, you’re not sure how God is working in your life. Don’t panic. Jesus’ inner circle of friends didn’t understand right away either and needed Jesus to reassure them. Like the disciples, we each need to work these things out during Lent. We pray that God will shed light in our lives, to transfigure it, that we can see how to move forward….and then we will be patient.
The message today as we prepare for whatever is coming in our own lives, is that God’s energy and light is with us and sustains us through the hardest times. This is real and happens every day. Recently I sat at the hospital with a couple who had just learned the worst news of their lives. I watched as the patient reached out to assure his wife, the healthy one, that they would get through it together, with God’s help. I was privileged to be watching the love and light that sustained them in this sacred space.
That IS what the Transfiguration is all about. It marks a transition in our insight from recognizing Jesus as God’s Son, to the season of thinking in a new way about how we can stand on our faith when life gets harder, to better love God and each other.
February 19, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
“You have heard it said. . . But I say to you. . .”Jesus says in today’s Gospel.
You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Jesus’ hearers had heard this decree because it is found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In other words, it’s in the Bible. An eye for an eye because it established a proportional response when one was offended or harmed.
It put a limit on revenge and retaliation. If someone stole one of your sheep, you could take one of theirs. One, but you couldn’t take their whole flock. If someone killed someone in your family, you could kill one of theirs but not his whole family. An eye for an eye established proportional retaliation intended to prevent unlimited cycles of violence. This was the world that Jesus was born into, and Jesus said, “No.” Jesus said no retaliation, no revenge, not even proportional; an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
Turn the other cheek. A blow to the right cheek indicated a demeaning, shaming act of a superior toward an inferior. A blow to personal honor, it caused more insult than injury. To turn the other cheek is to offer the left one, this would require the aggressor to use his fist to strike you. By doing so, by turning the other cheek, you rob the aggressor of the power to humiliate and shame. Jesus is speaking about the power of not retaliating. He’s holding that up, the power of non-violent resistance.
If anyone wants your coat, give them your cloak as well. In Jesus’ world, people wore two garments, a tunic as a first layer next to the skin and a heavier cloak over that. To give them both was to end up naked and nakedness was considered the ultimate humiliation. To take both tunic and cloak and force such humiliation shows the greed of the one making the demand, it brings shame upon them for being greedy.
So does Jesus’ admonition to go the extra mile. Soldiers could force citizens to carry their things for up to one mile in the ancient world. To force more than a mile could get the soldier into trouble. Walking the extra mile is an act of protest meant to show that the citizen is an equal to the soldier – non-violently resisting the soldier’s assumption of his superiority.
Jesus holds up non-violent resistance again with the most challenging and perhaps greatest of all of his teachings, “Love your enemies.” Every message, every impulse, every reaction in Jesus’ world, and in our world today, says hate your enemies, hurt them, kill them even. But Jesus says, “No, love them.”
It is important to remember that the love Jesus is commanding us to have is not a feeling, it’s not affection, or warmth of heart; it is an act of the will. It is willing the good for the other, as difficult as that might be, which is why Jesus links this love with praying for them. Praying for one’s enemies is attempting to see them from God’s point of view.
To see even an enemy as a beloved child of God turns the world upside down. All of those actions, not taking an eye for an eye, turning the other cheek, giving coat as well as cloak, walking the extra mile, loving one’s enemy, turn the world upside down. Far from being signs of weakness or meekness or humiliation they are the most powerful things a Christian can do. To stand up to violence and humiliation and hate with non-violent resistance, to stand up to them with love, to love even those who harm us.
Love is the only thing that can transform our world and our lives because love is the most powerful force in the universe. Love is stronger than violence, stronger than greed, humiliation and hate.
Let us pray: Creator God, help us to see ourselves and others as you see us, as beloved. Help us to love, even our enemies. Help us to know that your law of love calls us beyond earthly laws and the converting of this world into your promised land, into the kingdom of justice, love and peace. Amen.
February 5, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
“Bring forth the Kingdom of mercy, Bring forth the Kingdom of peace; Bring fourth the Kingdom of justice, Bring forth the City of God!”
Bring forth the kingdom, that’s what Jesus was telling the great crowd that had gathered to hear him teach. We call it The Sermon on the Mount. Great crowds were following Jesus, all the people - Jews and Gentiles, male and female, rich and poor, healthy and sick, young and old. All sorts and conditions of people hungry to hear what Jesus had to say, and in today’s passage they are told “you are the salt,” “you are the light.” Season and shine. Bring forth the Kingdom.
You may not recognize the name Asma Jami, but you may have heard her story. About a year ago, Asma, an American Muslim, was having dinner at an Applebees Restaurant in Coon Rapids. She and her family were speaking Swahili as they enjoyed their dinner, when suddenly a woman at a nearby table shouted, “Speak American or get out of the country!” Speak American, yikes.
Asma, a practicing Muslim dressed in the traditional head covering, calmly explained that she is a U.S citizen, her children were born here, and that they with her parents chose to speak Swahili. Before she could finish the angry woman picked up a beer mug and smashed Asma in the face. She needed 17 stitches and will have permanent scars. In court she told how she was too frightened to leave her house for a long time after the attack. She considered moving from Minnesota.
The attacker was arrested, convicted, and sentenced. In court Asma made this statement to her attacker: “My religion teaches me to forgive so I can get on with my life. If I hold a grudge, if I hold the hate you hold towards me against you, it’s not going to serve me well. So, in front of everybody here, I do forgive you and I hope that you choose love over hate . . . Having hate just eats at you, it’s not good. I hope you find what you’re looking for at the end of your journey. I know you’ve had just as long of a year as I’ve had . . . I don’t have any ill feelings toward you. I just want you to understand at the end of all this that we are all the same. It doesn’t matter what’s on my head, it doesn’t matter the color of my skin – we are all the same human beings, we are fighting for the same rights. I am an American citizen and would fight for it today as much as you would. So I just want you to understand you hit somebody you didn’t know anything about . . . So I hope you learn at the end of all this we are all the same, there’s no difference between me and you.”
Asma was free to choose, she could have responded to violence with violence, to hate by hating back, to being deeply wronged by holding a grudge, but she chose to forgive. Forgiveness is the salt and the light that Jesus challenges us to be. Pointing out that we are all the same, we are all beloved Children of God is the salt and light that Jesus challenges us to proclaim. Confronting racism with love is the salt and light our country and our world desperately need today.
In today’s passage from Isaiah the people are not seeing results from their religious practice. “Why do we fast, but you do not see?” “O, God, we humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” They are saying, “You should be blessing us, O God, look at how religious we are.” And God says, being religious isn’t about engaging in spiritual practices in order to earn blessings from God. Being religious is about loosening the bonds of injustice, undoing the thongs of the yoke, letting the oppressed go free, sharing bread with the hungry, finding shelter for the homeless and clothing for the naked.
Letting your light shine for others, not puffing yourself up by bragging about how often you fast and how humble you are. Be salt, be light. Put your faith into practice. Our hopes for justice need to become our work for justice. Our prayers for peace and unity in the world must be lived in our home and in our community. Our profession of faith in God must be translated into how we live our lives and treat our neighbor. Forgiving as Asma Jami forgave her attacker. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive. . .” If we do not practice our faith by striving for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being, loving even our enemy we are flavorless salt, a light hidden under a bushel basket. When that happens, when good people treat faith in God as a ticket to heaven rather than a means of transforming the earth, the darkness of violence and injustice has more room to grow. Let us be light. Let us be salt. Let us bring forth the Kingdom. Amen.
January 29, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
It is one of the most familiar and often quoted passages in the Bible. The last verse of today’s first reading from Micah is one simple verse, perfect for a bumper sticker. “He (God) has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? To love kindness is often translated to love goodness. Do justice, love goodness and walk humbly with God – that’s it. That’s the answer to the question we all want to know, what is God’s will? What does God want from us, God’s people? Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God. Micah is one of the minor prophets in the Old Testament. Being a minor prophet doesn’t mean his message is less important, it just means the book is shorter. Micah is only seven chapters long compared to Isaiah’s sixty-six chapters and Jeremiah’s fifty-two, they are the major prophets, but Micah packs a whole lot of truth into seven short chapters. Written eight centuries before Christ when times were good in Israel. They were in the middle of a revival, the temple was seeing record numbers of worshippers, the budget was balanced, and there was prosperity, but Micah knew something was wrong. Israel was arrogant and uncaring. In chapter 2, Micah castigates the powerful who covet fields, and seize them; covet houses, and take them away. (2:2) The people were greedy and selfish. They were not grateful for what they had, they simply wanted more. In chapter 3 Micah again condemns the leaders for sending violence on the poor (3:5) and taking bribes and religious leaders who sell out for money. So the stage is set for today’s powerful passage. Times are good, there is prosperity, but the poor and vulnerable are being taken advantage of by the powerful, who seek to be enriched. Today’s passage, Micah 6:1-8, takes place in a courtroom. Micah pictures God charging Israel with crimes and taking them to court. The mountains, hills, and foundations of the earth are witnesses for the prosecution. God’s accusation is that the people are selfish, they have forgotten God’s generosity, all that God has done for them, all that God has given them. God says, I brought you up from the land of Egypt, freed you from slavery. I gave you great leaders like Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. I gave you a home in the Promised Land. You can almost hear God pleading, like a parent with a child who is rejecting the parent’s love. Look at all the good things, all the blessings I have bestowed on you, my people. All I have given you and done for you, and the people miss the point completely. They ask: What more can you possibly want from us, O God? We offer sacrifices in the temple, do you want more of them, thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil, the sacrifice of a son? Just how religious do we need to be to please you, O God? And the prophet, speaking for God, replies with the verse we can put on our bumper. Being religious isn’t about worshipping correctly, using the right words or offering the right sacrifices. What does God want? Love one another, care for one another, do justice, be a voice for those who have no voice, for oppressed persons, unprotected persons, widows, foreigners, minorities, the poor and sick and elderly. Reach out and care for every person who is treated as less than, less than a beloved child of God. Love kindness. The Hebrew word hered means God’s loving-kindness. God gives us this love that we might share it with others, love one another. Walk humbly with God, listen for God’s voice everywhere and always, do not presume to know God’s will, but be open to God’s presence which can be found in unexpected places and in unexpected people. Today’s Gospel, the Beatitudes, help us to know who has found favor with God. Who is blessed? The poor in spirit. Those who mourn, not just over the loss of a loved one, but those who mourn over suffering in the world. Those who are broken-hearted over injustice, exploitation and violence. Blessed are the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the poor in heart and the peacemakers. In other words, those who do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God, they are blessed. It is good for us to hear the prophet’s words spoken eight centuries before Jesus to a community who were enjoying economic prosperity and worshipping fervently, but who were not taking care of the weak and vulnerable. It is good for us to hear the blessings of Jesus on those who were at the margins of society in the first century and those who were working for a more just and peaceful world. May these powerful words cause us to look around and look within at this time and inspire us to do God’s will – justice, kindness and humbly walking the way of God. This is God’s dream for us and for our world. he world will change when we dream God’s dream
January 22, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; of whom shall I be afraid, of whom shall I be afraid?” From today’s Gospel: “As (Jesus) walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. And (Jesus) said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Immediately. They just dropped everything and followed Jesus immediately, really? No time for discernment? No discussion among themselves? No questions for this stranger who called them? According to the Gospel, they responded immediately. James and John even left their father right there in the boat and followed, immediately. It must have been a powerful calling; it must have spoken to something deep, deep within them. Recently on the National Geographic channel there was a show about elephant seals in Argentina. Elephant seal mothers gather in great colonies on the beaches of Argentina to give birth to their pups. After giving birth, the mothers are famished, so they go off into the ocean to feed while the pups stay together on the beach. There are thousands of seal pups all along the beach. When the mothers return after feeding they get onto the beach and start calling their pups. Imagine that scene, all those mothers wandering the beach calling for their pups. The camera followed one mother as she wandered along. She’d call out and then tilt her head to listen for a response, hundreds of other mothers were doing the same thing. The noise was deafening, but she just kept calling and listening and moving a bit more. And then it happened. I could see her react to the sound of her pup calling back. Immediately she turned and went up the beach and found her pup and nursed it. From the moment of birth, the narrator explained, the sound of the pup is imprinted in the mother’s memory, and her sound is imprinted in the pup’s, so through all the noise and confusion, they can find each other and have life. That’s how it is with God and us. We are imprinted with a memory of God’s voice and God is imprinted with the memory of our voice so that we can find each other and have life. That’s what happened that day on the beach with Jesus and those first disciples. The disciples heard God’s voice and they responded. They hear a higher calling, it spoke to something deep within them, and without doubt or hesitation they responded. Last Monday we honored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who saw racial injustice and responded with nonviolent resistance. Racism touched something deep within him and he used words and non-violent actions to stand against it and to teach others to do the same. He responded to a higher calling. Last week I attended a luncheon where a man named Jeff Bauer was honored for his work to end child sex trafficking. The way he tells it, when Jeff learned that children were being trafficked for sex, it touched something deep inside him and he knew he needed to do something. He worked to change laws and he worked to get the children protection and help. He worked to teach hotel and transportation workers to recognize the signs and report them. Now he’s working to teach men and boys to honor and respect women and girls. He saw injustice and responded like the mother seal who heard the cry of her pup amid all the noise on that beach. Jeff heard a call to do what he could to end child sex trafficking. Immediately he did something. He responded to a higher calling. He began working for something larger than himself just like those disciples who went from being fishermen to men who fished for people. I looked around the room at that luncheon last week and I saw board members, social workers, elected officials, clergy, volunteers, and donors and it occurred to me that we all have a part to play. We are all called. We are all called to do our part to end this awful abuse of trafficking and to stand against abuse and injustice wherever we see and hear it, especially today in the midst of all the noise and fear and uncertainly that swirls around us. We can be like that mother elephant seal listening carefully for cries of injustice, pain and discrimination, and then respond immediately by doing what we can – speak up, volunteer, write letters, march peacefully, serve on a board, join a cause, organize one, make a donation, pray. Live with honesty and integrity and teach love and respect with every word you use and every action you take. Confront hurtful words and actions wherever you encounter them. Just like those first disciples God is calling us to build the kingdom of justice, love and peace right here and now. “On earth as it is in heaven.” It’s up to us; we are called. May we hear and respond immediately. Amen.
January 15, 2017 The Rev. Barb Elliott
Welcome to the Season of Epiphany, which marks the end of the Christmas Season, and celebrates the spread of the news of Jesus across the world! Jesus, the Light, was born into the world at Christmas, and now that light is extending into our hearts and into the hearts around the world—even its most troubled corners each day. Just like the sun’s rays that are now longer and stronger each day, it continues its spread. Today’s Gospel offers two examples of how this recognition and awareness about Jesus spread during his life: through John the Baptist’s words when he baptized, and then when his soon-to-be followers recognized Jesus. According to today’s Gospel, John the Baptist spoke words—out loud!—to those who were present, testifying that Jesus was the Lamb of God and the Son of God, for whom the way was being prepared, and observed that a dove had descended from Heaven and remained on Jesus when Jesus was baptized. When John the Baptist’s own disciples heard these words, they found themselves leaving John to follow Jesus. They were left, based on John the Baptist’s recommendations… and that launched Jesus’ ministry. This began the amazing transformation in human history, and clearly, it began with recommendations based in trust. Recommendations and trust—huge parts of our relationships and networking today, too. When was the most recent time you recommended something to someone you know: maybe a movie or a book or a restaurant? Perhaps it was a physician or school--? The list goes on and on. We generally recommend things that we have come to trust and enjoy, that we know something about. We find ourselves saying: “Come and See…” “Try it, you’ll like it!” “You’ll enjoy it.” “It is really good—come and see!” Come and See. These are exactly the same words Jesus uses in his invitation to John’s followers in today’s Gospel: “Come and See.” Jesus uses these words to invite the disciples who have heard John the Baptist’s observations about Jesus. How does this invitation connect with us in today’s Epiphany? We are invited now, especially during Epiphany, to bear the Light that Jesus brings to every setting where we find ourselves—here, the place we worship, as well as the places we work, the places we study, the places we play. This way can we continue the work of Epiphany, expanding the good news that Jesus and St Paul’s bring in the world. Perhaps the first step is to assure that we know those who are sitting next to us here at St Paul’s, in the pews. Look around you…do you know the names of those who are nearby? How about those on the other side of the church aisle—or who are older or younger than you are? One of our joys at St. Paul’s is that we are multi-generational—and so do you know folks who are here today? Please turn to someone you don’t know and introduce yourself! [BREAK] Then during the Peace, and in coffee hour, expand your new contact, learning a bit about your new friends. Another step in this Epiphany commitment is to share the Light in places beyond these walls. Everywhere we go, we find others, like us, who are looking to make sense of the challenging times that we live in. We are all looking for a way to order our lives in this complex world: Looking for truth. Looking for meaning. Looking for love. Looking for joy. Looking for healing. Looking for God. I don’t know the conversations that go on between you and God in your prayers, nor do I now what draws you to meet God here at St. Paul’s—it may be different than what drew the person sitting next to you. But the Epiphany story is only complete when we each go out and invite others to “Come and See” the something good that you have found, as well. Then that person can trust your recommendation, your invitation, to find the Light they are seeking, too. Let us pray… Jesus, Light of the world, thank you the gift of light found in you. Empower me to shine your love, mercy, and grace even in the smallest ways, so that the promise of your Light extends beyond the people and world that I know. Amen.
January 1, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss O Lord our Governor, how exalted is your Name in all the world! Amen. The last line of today’s Gospel tells us that eight days after Jesus’ birth “it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called ‘Jesus,’ the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.” Circumcised and named according to Jewish law after eight days, thus, we celebrate the feast of The Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ today, eight days after Christmas. Jesus’ name is important. The name Jesus means ‘God saves’ so Jesus’ name literally signifies that He is the Savior. Jesus would have been known as “Jesus, son of Joseph” at the time. You were named after your father even though we often think that Jesus’ last name was Christ. Christ is actually a title meaning ‘anointed one.’ It’s complicated but one’s name is important, it signifies who you belong to, the tribe you come from, who you are. Ones’ name indicates your identity. Jesus – God Saves. And you and I, what does our name mean? Are you named after someone? What does your name indicate about your identity, about who you are, and whose you are? Growing up I remember distinctly what it meant to be a Van Oss. I’m not even sure how I received the messages, but I remember knowing that being a Vas Oss meant you always tell the truth. To lie about something was a greater sin than doing something wrong because we all make mistakes, but to lie about them that was never okay. Always tell the truth. I also learned that being a Van Oss meant you don’t complain you figure things out. Sitting around and complaining doesn’t do any good. Figure it out, fix it, solve it. Clear messages about what it meant to be a member of the Van Oss tribe. Our name points to our identity of always being truthful, never complaining. Names. Our president-elect likes putting his name on buildings. Buildings all over the world bear the name Trump in giant letters and that signifies you can expect certain things when you walk into one of those building. There will be Italian marble and waterfalls, gilded décor and fine artwork with fancy lighting. This is meant to be a signal that you can expect only the best, only the best accommodations, only the best service, only the best experience; quality. The name on the outside indicates what you will find on the inside. Like me learning early on that being named Van Oss meant certain things, so it is with the name on the outside of a building. The name indicates what you will find on the inside. Names. All of us gathered here this morning share a name, we all share a name in common, the name of Jesus for we are all Christian, baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. We have the name of Christ printed on our souls, as an indelible seal. We are named after Jesus Christ and so that means certain things.
Bearing the name of Christ on the outside means we speak and act in certain ways, rooted in our baptismal covenant. We know that Christians gather for worship to tell the story, break the bread, and be shaped, formed, reshaped and reformed. We know that Christians ask forgiveness when they do wrong and forgive others when they are wronged. We know that Christians proclaim the Good News given to them and seek and serve Christ in all persons, that we love our neighbor as ourself, and that we strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. Bearing the name of Christ means we think and act in certain ways; in ways sometimes at odds with the ways of the world around us. As we gather this day to celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus Christ, let us remember that we all bear his name as a result of our baptism. This means we think, speak and act in certain ways, counter-cultural ways, so that we live up to his name. We live in a way worthy of the name of Christ. Today as we gather to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is good to remember that we have been given Jesus’ name and that we are called to live up to that Name. Amen.