February 25, 2018 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
”Take up your cross, the Savior said”
“(Jesus) called the crowd with his disciples and said to them: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” Take up your cross our Savior said. The cross is a strange symbol to have at the center of our faith. The cross was and is an instrument of torture and execution. Execution by crucifixion was commonplace in the Roman Empire until Emperor Constantine outlawed it in the fourth century.
Historians tell us there were permanent racks set up outside cities and towns where criminals were hung for all to see to send a message to anyone who might try to challenge Rome’s power; this is what will happen to you. People died slow excruciating deaths. Jesus died a slow, excruciating death on the cross.
It’s strange to have this instrument of suffering and death at the center of our faith, but as early as the late fourth century we find images of crosses in Christian art, decorating urns that held the ashes of early Christians, many of whom were martyred, killed for their faith.
We follow the cross in our processions, we followers of Christ. We bow to the cross to honor and reverence it. A beautiful cross adorns the high altar, it is central to our faith. We embrace it as a symbol of God’s grace, a reminder that nothing, nothing, can overcome God’s love. No sin, no suffering or pain, no injustice, not even death can overcome God’s love which is given freely and unconditionally to all.
When we see the cross and meditate on it, we are reminded again and again that Love Wins. Nothing can overcome the all-powerful love of God in Christ Jesus. Love is the most powerful force in the universe, stronger than suffering, stronger than pain or shame, stronger than sin, stronger than death. The cross reminds us again and again that love wins.
They tried to kill love on Calvary’s hill so long ago when they crucified Jesus, but you notice that our crosses do not have Jesus hanging on them as crucifixes do; our crosses are empty. Because Jesus Lives, God Lives, Love Lives. God’s grace is free and available for all who open themselves to it. The empty cross testifies to that.
It’s important to remember that ancient Israel had no sense of an afterlife. People at the time of Abraham and Sarah and Jesus were not thinking that they would live on in heaven after they died, rather they lived on in their children, especially through their first-born son. So, Abraham and Sarah, in today’s reading form Genesis, who were elderly and childless, must have been filled with joy to learn they would have offspring because it meant they would live on forever. And, Jesus, the Son of God, if God’s Son had died, then God would not have lived on. But the cross is empty, Jesus lives. Love lives forever.
The love we share here in this life, and the perfect love that awaits us in the life to come lives. Love lives, God lives, and so when we encounter the inevitable crosses that we face, when we suffer a broken relationship or an illness, or the loss of a loved one, when we are betrayed and hurt, when we make poor choices that hurt ourselves and others and God, when we make sacrifices, when we suffer we can look at the cross and know we believe in a God who suffered for us. We are not alone in our suffering and it will not win. God’s grace can never be overcome. The cross is empty, Jesus lives, Love wins
“Take up your cross, the Savior said, if you would my disciple be, take up your cross with willing heart, and humbly follow after me.” Amen.
February 18, 2018 The Rev. Dr. Barbara Elliott
When was the most recent time you were experiencing a really hard time, spending time ‘in the wilderness’ as today’s Bible reading calls it?
We experience these times when nothing is right. Some of our wilderness times are really significant and life changing—like living with a chronic disease, ending a marriage, losing a job, grieving the death of a loved one. In these hard times, we find ourselves faced with life-changing challenges. Then we are tested spiritually and need to figure out/discover who we are now in order to move forward.
This indeed, is what our readings are about today. Mark’s Gospel reassures us that like Jesus, from time to time, we have 40 days in the wilderness. When that happens, Mark describes how God is with us, that angels take care of us, and we come through the other end, spiritually stronger and moving toward a future in a different relationship with God.
Perhaps you are in the wilderness now due to something that is happening in your life. We each take our turn in these seriously hard times. Some of us are there now—may God bless you as you do this spiritual work.
Others of us are fortunate to be between the wilderness experiences that come with our lives. For those of us who are in the temporarily-fortunate group, Lent is the church season when we are invited to work on our personal relationship with God, our spirituality. With this work, we learn to live with more integrity, guided by the sacred.
How can we do that? This Lenten journey starts with a profound personal question for each of us: What is it that stands in your way of being closer to God? The answer to this question is evident in something that occupies your time and your worries in this day-to-day world.
What concerns do occupy your energy and keep you from seeing God’s work in your life? Answering this question invites us into the next 40 days and into the future.
So—what is it about your life that is creating anxiety for you? What do you do that you wish were not distracting you and taking you away from being fully present in your relationships? Maybe it is binge eating ice cream, or chocolate? Or video games? Or drinking alcohol? Or watching television or some other screen? No doubt, you know of something that is causing you dismay, that you could change in your life, but you are really are not sure that you want to—or perhaps you may not even think that you can change it.
Lent is the church season when we visit these concerns and work to expand the spiritual spaciousness in our lives. One way to do this is to first, identify one thing that is causing you distress, and then second, commit to focusing on how this issue distracts or pre-occupies you through these next weeks. Let me give an example.
Let’s say you know that you and someone at work—or at home—argue too much. You recognize that you quarrel and upset each other routinely, and you wish that were not true. During Lent, I invite you to focus on this, carefully observing yourself whenever stress mounts and the fighting happens. Observe how you feel as your tension increases, what is happening in your body and mind when the words are flying, even when hurtful words come out and are said. Are you excited? Afraid? Does your stomach cramp? Are you remembering how hurt you were—or how good you felt—in the past? Also watch your reactions and feelings as the disagreement winds down and ends, and then how you are afterwards. Do you feel like you won—or lost? Is this important?
Do this repeatedly through these next weeks. Notice how you feel, how your observations are consistent and how they change, if they do.
The purpose of these observations is to notice how your mind and body and spirit are each active in this experience. When you make these observations intentionally, your spirit is engaged in what is happening, too. Then at the end of these 40 days—at Easter—you can stop. You will know then also what changes God is leading you to make, if any.
This process engages our spirit. Spiritual change happens when we witness what comes between us and God and how it creates distress for us. Our relationship with God strengthens in our day-to-day life. And when it is our turn to go into life’s wildernesses, we have deeper spiritual resources in our tool chest.
So—join me in this Lenten journey: what is it that is distressing you these days? It is time to invite the spirit to experience these concerns with us.
February 14, 2018 Ash Wednesday The Rev. Dr. Barbara Elliott
What do you wish were different about your life today? Maybe you know of something you regret about your life, perhaps even feel shame about as you think about it and want to change in your life. These feelings come from deep inside us, and any solutions can only come from inside, too. These aches reveal our current spiritual suffering.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. This is the day that we recognize we have only this one life to live, and it is a gift from God. Then we are invited to think deeply about our lives, recognizing how we can strengthen our spiritual lives.
So what is it that you wish were different in your life now? Your answer to this question may recognize one of your personal characteristics, or it may be a relationship issue, or it may be something you have done that you wish were different. Today, Ash Wednesday, is the day to recognize what you with were changed and personally, privately, begin considering how that is getting in the way of who you really could be. During this season, during Lent, we have the opportunity to make change, to intentionally connect with our spirit life, toward loving God and living with more integrity.
You and I live daily in a world with a lot of day-to-day busy-ness, a reality where we each have lists of things we need to get done and people we need to see. All of these activities are happening at a human-level, our ego’s level, where human rules and expectations guide our activities. And we get through the days, one after another. Feelings are involved too—we have moments of joy, of play and celebration, of sadness, of anger, of confusions and unfinished business. These are our day-to-day experiences. They are world-ly experiences.
We know that sometimes our lives are absolutely amazing, and we have experiences that give energy and joy, connecting us with the sacred, with our sense of God. Other times we do things that leave our lives feeling empty and pointless. These low points are usually the consequence of something we wish hadn’t happened or that we wish we did not do. Lent is about both of these points: first recognizing what we are doing that leaves us feeling wounded or lost. And second, holding these issues honestly before God, and working together toward building more authentic experiences guided by the sacred.
The readings for today offer suggestions on how to do this. The psalm reminds us that we each do things that we regret and that we need to tell God about them. We need to recognize how our actions separate us from the sacred—and ask forgiveness, then find a way to deepen our connection with God.
Matthew’s Gospel today reports how Jesus invites us to extend our authentic, honest relationships with each other and with God, by leaving our day-to-day lives (which tend to be focused on making ourselves look good) behind us. In the Gospel, Jesus suggests that we change our ways when we connect with the sacred, with God, by doing it privately and quietly, not advertising or showing off when we pray or worship. Yes—Jesus encourages us to have personal relationships with God, which grounds our spirituality.
During Lent we are invited to grow our relationship with God. This invitation is different from ‘following the rules’ to get through these 40 days. It is an invitation for each of us to grow in ways where meaning and purpose, forgiveness, important relationships, and hope make a difference. These are the sacred parts of our day-to-day life, the spiritual layer of our experience.
Accomplishing these tasks is not superficial work. It is not easy—because it is deep work. We each start with the clear reminder, as we do today, that this day-to-day life we live will end: “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return…” The time we have to enhance our spiritual being is limited. The next step is confessing how what we have done stands between ourselves and God, between ourselves and our neighbor. We admit to God what we wish were different in our confession, and then begin our Lenten spiritual work. With humility, we begin this Lenten spiritual work, re-building our relationships, our hope, our sense of meaning, our love of ourselves and of others. Together we walk this path, supported by God’s love.
LET US PRAY
Dear God, bless us as we take these steps toward knowing ourselves, strengthening our relationships with each other and with you. AMEN
February 4, 2018 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
Today’s Gospel has always made me cringe. It’s important to pay attention to the details in the Gospel, especially in the shortest and most compact Gospel of Mark.
One of the details of today’s Gospel has always bothered me. Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever. There’s lots of flu going around this year, and this flu often includes a fever. If any of you have had it, you know that once the fever’s gone you don’t exactly feel perfect right away, right? You feel depleted. You haven’t been eating very well, your muscles are weak, so you’re probably not anxious to just jump right up and have a dinner party, to start serving people, are you?
You might need some more time to rest, to feel more fully restored before going back to work, but not Simon’s mother-in-law. We’re told: “The fever left her, and she began to serve them.” What? Give the poor woman a break. Give her some Jell-O or chicken soup and let her recover a little. “. . . she began to serve them,” an important detail that might make us cringe. We puzzle about it.
Pastor Sarah Henrich puzzled about it and came up with this excellent insight. She wrote: “Illness bore a heavy social cost: not only would a person be unable to earn a living or contribute to the well-being of a household, but their ability to take their proper role in the community, to be honored as a valuable member of a household, town, or village, would be taken from them. Peter’s mother-in-law is an excellent case in point. It was her calling and her honor to show hospitality to guests in her home. Cut off from that role by an illness cut her off from doing that which integrated her into her world. Who was she when no longer able to engage in her calling? Jesus restored her to her social world and brought her back to a life of value by freeing her from that fever. It is very important to see that healing is about restoration to community and restoration of a calling, a role, as well as restoration to life. For life without community and calling is bleak indeed.”
Sarah is suggesting, among other things, that this is a story about discipleship. Simon’s mother-in-law is accepting Jesus’ call to be His disciple, the first female disciple called to serve, for service is the heart of discipleship, the heart of the Christian life. We follow the one who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many,’ as it says in Mark 10:45. Freed from the fever that had incapacitated her, she was freed for service. She was restored to the honor and privilege of service, showing hospitality to guests in her home.
In last week’s Gospel Jesus cast an unclean spirit out of the man in the synagogue and that’s all we know. We don’t know what the man did after being set free. This week, we encounter a woman who once set free embraces service. I believe the lesson is quite clear, that Jesus not only sets us free from the things that oppress us and holds us back from knowing new and abundant life, Jesus frees us for a life of purpose, meaning and yes, good works, loving and service to one another. Being set free from what hold us back frees us for loving service.
Here are three examples.
A while back I read a story about a soldier who returned from serving in Afghanistan with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). His life was pure misery, but thanks to some excellent healthcare and a lot of work he began to emerge from the darkness, at which point he made it his mission to help other soldiers suffering with PTSD. Serving them, giving back, is part of his healing.
Another example. My father has suffered deep grief since my mother died eight years ago. It has been very difficult, but one of the things that has helped his healing is reaching out to others who have lost their spouses. When someone from church, or his Barbershop group, or a high school classmate loses their spouse my dad invites them out to lunch where they tell stories. Serving them, listening to them, is part of my father’s healing.
Finally, anyone who works a 12-step program of recovery knows that the twelfth step is about giving back, reaching out, service to others who are in the grips of an addiction. Working the program to remain free, they give back to others. Freedom from something means freedom for service.
Jesus stands ready to free us from fear, anger, despair, loss, insecurity and whatever else is holding us captive. He reaches out and takes us by the hand and lifts us up so that we might do the same for others. May today’s story of Simon’s mother-in-law, Jesus’ first female disciple, inspire us to take Him by the hand so that we will be freed from whatever hold us back, to live lives of purpose, meaning and service, to live lives of discipleship. Amen.