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Friday, November 15, 2019
Welcoming All into God's Peace Together
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Sermons

190420

 
The Great Vigil of Easter
20 April 2019
St. Paul’s, Shelton
The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson
Romans 6:3-11
Matthew 28:1-10

 

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 

Hear once more Paul’s exhortation to the Church at Rome (6:3-4):

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

There you have it, my sisters and brothers; the core of the Gospel. We have been baptized into Christ’s death, and thus have been raised with him. So, if the truth of the Gospel is that simple, why do we participate in these elaborate rites during the Triduum? Why do people dressed up like me stand up here and go on and on? And why do people like you come here and listen?

The reason is that we are, though raised with Christ through baptism, a most forgetful lot. We need constant reminding – reminding of the many and various ways God constantly speaks to us, calls out to us, invites us into relationship.

This is why we luxuriate in the biblical bath that is the Great Vigil. We tell each other story upon story of our ancestors in faith, and the promises of abundant life made to each new generation – even our own.

This is why we renew our baptismal vows at the font of new birth. This is why people sign themselves with holy water when entering a church, another reminder of their passage into and through the font of life.

In churchy lingo, this remembering is called anamnesis, and we enter into anamnesis in order to avoid amnesia. This is why this night of nights, this feast of feasts, is jammed full of storytelling and recollection. It is not about making the Great Vigil the longest liturgy of the year.

This overabundance of stories is to help us remember. I like to think that the stories – and their telling – help supply the photos that have slipped out of our treasured family album – and gone missing.

The picture that’s usually missing is that really special one. You know what I mean. Maybe it’s the one that EVERYone in the family likes, so someone has taken it home. Maybe it’s been taken out and looked at so often that it won’t stay stuck on the page anymore.

Tonight, I want to suggest that that special photo we hold in our hearts is travel photo. Close your eyes for a moment; just picture it in your mind. Smile and nod to yourself at its familiarity. Even if you didn’t think so at first, you come to see that it is from a trip of some sort – there you are, there we are, grinning and waving to the camera – still wet behind the ears, eager to begin our common walk in newness of life.

This is the night to remember that life in the Risen Christ is a road-trip…with all of its twists and turns and unexpected adventures.

† † †

Tonight, we hear Matthew’s account of the Resurrection. None of the Evangelists deals with twists and turns like Matthew, with his love of the exotic and dramatic. Matthew is the one who gives us stars, eclipses, and the dreams of Joseph and the Magi. Just so, there is drama in his telling us what happens when the women go to the tomb that early morning. Matthew tells us of an earthquake, this one caused by an angel coming to roll the stone away from the mouth of the sealed and well-guarded tomb.

Because we listen to Matthew tonight, I want to talk a little bit about a vivid account of the events between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. It’s known as the Harrowing of Hell. Out of one small phrase of the Apostles’ Creed – He descended into hell, an entire tradition sprang up, mostly in the Eastern Church.

The story of Christ’s descent into Hades and his delivering those who sat in the shadow of death since the beginning of the world comes to us in the Gospel of Nicodemus, one of the ancient apocryphal texts which form part of the spiritual reading of Orthodox Christians. While these texts have never been regarded as scripture, they are honored for their insight and beauty.

In the Gospel of Nicodemus, this complex story is told by two men, who were raised from their tombs during the earthquake on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, when the veil of the Temple was torn in two.[1] These men, Karinus and Leucius, describe dwelling in deep, shadowy darkness with all their forbears in faith.

Suddenly, they tell us, “the sun’s golden heat was there, and purple royal light shone on us.” Like the hero of a graphic novel, Jesus smashes through the iron-clad gates of hell. Then Jesus, stretching out his hand to Adam, says, “Come to me, all my saints who bear my image and my likeness. You that by the tree and the devil and death were condemned, behold now the devil and death condemned by the Tree!” Jesus, holding the right hand of Adam, says: “Peace be to you with all your children, my just ones.”

This tradition is reflected today when Orthodox Christians proclaim Christ is risen from the dead, / Trampling down death by death, / And upon those in the tombs / Bestowing life!

Now, I tell you this tale because we are called to travel beyond the empty tomb – called to walk in newness of life. Easy to say. Hard to do. The Gospel of Nicodemus tells us that Adam had lived in Hades for 5500 years. Can you imagine being anywhere for 5500 years?

What I want to know is this: how many of those in Hades didn’t want to be yanked out, even by the hand of Christ. There must have been some. It was all so familiar. They knew the neighborhood.

Do you remember in 1973, when four Swedes were held in a bank vault for six days and became attached to their captors? This phenomenon was dubbed the Stockholm Syndrome, but it is as ancient as God’s dealings with us. Remember the Children of Israel crying to Moses: did you bring us out of bondage because there were no graves in Egypt?

What is all this about? It’s about not being in control, right? It’s about the unknown. It’s about FEAR! Matthew takes fear by the horns. In this relatively brief story, he mentions fear four times!

For fear of the angel, the guards shook and became like dead men.

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid;”

The women left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.

Jesus said to the women, “Do not be afraid.”

 

So, let’s talk about us for a minute. Where is our fear? How afraid are we about being pulled out of our prisons, even by the hand of Christ? How many of us are stuck in prisons – sometimes of our own making? One of the reasons we tell these stories, is to remind ourselves that Christ has trampled down death by death, bestowing life upon those in the tombs.

This is living in newness of life, even at the expense of the comfort of death. We might say out loud that Christ died once for all, but our experience is that the journey into newness of life is unending, requiring constant attention to the path before us.

On our journey together God calls us to metanoia, to a constant turning. For some of us this metanoia means turning away from our well-guarded tombs of self-involvement. For others, it means smashing through the iron-clad doors that hide a glorious, redeemed self from view.

How easy it is to refuse to see the hand of Christ extended to us by others, or to withhold our own hand from reaching out. And easier still to keep the good news of the gospel to ourselves, hoarding it as private treasure. We may live in sure and certain hope of the resurrection, but there are days when we make walking in newness of life pretty difficult.

Because, when big changes come, it’s very tempting to go to ground, to isolate, to hole up in safe tombs of fear, anxiety, hurt, rage, vindication or smugness.

Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” come to keep watch at the tomb of their slaughtered friend, and their expectations are turned upside down. Not only is Jesus not there, but they are not even permitted to sit and ponder the empty tomb.

Instead, they are told to get on the road, to go quickly and tell the disciples what they had seen.

God constantly calls us to turn from where we are, or where we want to stay, to go…somewhere else. Even as we long for rest, we are called out of our tombs and told to join the road trip to newness of life.

† † †

Remember the photo of us on our common journey? As we move forward into new life, treasure it. Keep it before your eyes. Time will change the faces in the picture: all will age, some will die, or move away, others will join the trip, and countless others will make the journey on other paths.

But we can’t walk in newness of life if we try to stay in one place, and if we trod the path with our hands jammed in our pockets, we will surely stumble and fall.

St. Paul tells us to consider ourselves alive to God in Christ Jesus. Just imagine! Alive to God. Alive to the world. Why seek the living among the dead? Christ is risen. Christ has trampled death by death. Christ has given life to those in the tomb. Go quickly now. Get on the road and tell the world what you have seen.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

A blessed Easter to you all. Amen.



[1] Mt 27:51-52.

 


 190419

 
April 19, 2019
Good Friday
Christ Church, Tashua
The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
The Third Word
John 19:25-27

 

Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.

Music cue: Pergolesi, Stabat mater

When I hear this haunting music, the beginning of Pergolesi’s 18th c. masterpiece, Stabat mater, I hear the sad, resolute footsteps of those who have followed Jesus to the cross. And, on days like today, I find myself there with them. Today, I invite you to let your mind and heart travel there as well.

Take a moment to get your bearings. Adjust to the light, the dust, the noise, the smells. As you look around, you see all manner of people. There are those who just pass by, uncaring; there are the curious rubberneckers; there are the soldiers, there the women who followed Jesus and stand near, there is the disciple whom Jesus loved.

Imagine what might have been in the hearts and minds of those faithful few, especially his Mother. To want desperately for this not to be happening. To want to be anywhere else, yet knowing that this is the only place they can be.

When you stand at the edge of death, memories flood in on every side, swirling, all a-jumble…like a box of photographs that’s fallen from the closet shelf. Sorrow and love flow mingled down.

To guide us as we stand at the foot of the cross, here is a poem by annelies zjiderveld. The music is based on the hymn, At the cross her vigil keeping.

Music cue: Stabat mater dolorosa

Myopia (John 19:25-27)[1]

In an instant a child can disappear

Instead of walking with you, he’s just not there.

Steps get retraced back from where

You came and find him turning over questions

with teachers, surprised by concern,

Didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house?

Who reproves a child making sense

of father from Father- you take his words to heart.

 

Music cue: Stabat mater dolorosa


After some years, your boy becomes

a man selecting the right companions. Who is it

that draws to him people like a bucket

of water pulling from a well? A crowd gathers

curious, you round up your boys

who mutter, He must be out of his mind, and

try to take charge, still not getting

what season he is now entering. Instead of access

you hear him ask, Who are my mother

and brothers, you see him motioning to the crowd,

continuing to assert his godliness in

declaring those obedient, mother and brothers.

 

Music: Stabat mater dolorosa


Who knew the road would lead here:

a hill, a cross, a crown. You watch as they drive nails

into the hands you used to hold as he

learned how to walk – hands that learned his father’s

trade – hands that knew how to save

water and turn it into wine.  You’ve always taken

his words to heart, not comprehending

this day would come. And even if your boy wanted

none of this would be undone.

Your God, your son looks on you weeping and loves

You, utters, Dear woman behold your son,

as he motions to his friend and to him, Here is your mother.

Taking care of those he cherishes because

He knows how this ends, that it is near, soon to whisper[2]

It is finished as the rest of the story begins.

 

Music cue: Stabat mater dolorosa – first phrase



[1] ©Annelies Zijderveld. All rights reserved. Please do not reprint or post without attribution. I wrote this poem for City Church San Francisco, and read it as part of their Good Friday service 2013.

 

[2] Originally, “daven.”

 


190418

 
Maundy Thursday
18 April 2019
Grace, Trumbull
The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

 

Grace to you, and peace from God our Father,
and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

Why is this night different from all other nights? Tomorrow evening, as Passover begins, this question will be asked in households and gatherings across the globe. By tradition, the youngest child poses this ritual question. Tonight, I would invite us to make it our question as well.
Why is this night different from all other nights?

First off, this night is different because we are all together, once again, moving toward Easter as the Episcopal Church in Trumbull.

This night is different, because tonight we, as a People called by God, have moved, once again, into a time without time.

This night, we begin to walk in sacred time. We began by singing: Three holy days enfold us now, in washing feet and breaking bread, in cross and font and life renewed: in Christ, God’s firstborn from the dead.[1]

In these three days, we tell stories, sing songs, pray prayers and keep vigils that we tell, sing, pray and keep only once a year. During these three days, there is a bewildering web of images that don’t seem to go together. Hospitality in the midst of Betrayal. Leadership founded in Servanthood. Life out of Death…Life beyond the grave.

Tonight is different from all other nights, because God reboots time! Wait… a do-over? A mulligan? Yes, really! In the book of Exodus, we hear This month shall mark for you the beginning of months. And a festive memorial meal is given as the marker of this new telling of time. God’s radical hospitality of freedom from bondage continues to be memorialized today – in both Seder and Eucharist.

Tonight is different from all other nights because we hear Paul give the earliest account of God’s extravagant, radical hospitality in the simplest of meals. What we read in his letter to the Church at Corinth reflects what the Church there was already doing when it gathered for the Eucharist, decades before any of the Gospel descriptions of the Last Supper were written down.

Tonight is different from all other nights, because tonight Jesus, too, pushes the reset button: I give you a new commandment. And, as we have come to expect when Jesus says such things, the alarms on our comfort zones begin to blare.

I give you a new commandment, that you should love one another, just as I have loved you. So, here’s a puzzlement: can you command someone to love another? How does that work? When Jesus commands his disciples to love one another, the Gospel writer does not use the Greek word eros of passionate love (“erotic”) or the Greek phileo of familial endearment and loyalty (“brotherly love” Philadelphia).

Rather, in this commandment, the word for love is agape: the self-sacrificing love of a parent, the promise of an ongoing and permanent welcome. Jesus commands his disciples – then and now – to act in a loving way towards the other. So, two small stories…

A couple of Novembers ago, I had the joy of participating in a monthly Family Service at a parish in another town. An integral part of that gathering was an activity whose aim was to carry the Good News of God in Christ into the wider world. It being November, the children decorated pie boxes that would carry pumpkin pies as part of the Thanksgiving baskets in the local community.

Just picture long tables, filled with every craft item imaginable – markers, stickers, leaves, glue and, of course, glitter. Each child brought her or his own talents to bear, resulting in a cornucopia of dazzling decoration.

Most of the young folks spent their time on the top and outsides of the box, some the inside cover. But one little girl was laboring over inscribing a message on the bottom of the box. I said, “you know that when we put the pie in the box, no one will see this message.” And she, the wise one in this story, said, “but when they take the pie out, they’ll get surprise!” Wise, indeed! …

Oh, the message? “Remember that we love you!”

Love to the loveless shown,

That they might lovely be.[2]

The second story. One Sunday morning, while getting ready for church, I was listening to the Public Radio show, “The Splendid Table.” One of the guests was Shane Mitchell, a food writer who had written a book called “Far Afield: Rare food encounters from around the world.” The story that struck me was of her journey to The Jungle, to meet Hamada.

The Jungle is the notorious illegal encampment that appeared outside of Calais just as another refugee crisis in Europe peaked. Jungle residents number in the thousands, representing the diaspora from Afghanistan to Eritrea, all fleeing war, terror, conscription, prostitution or human trafficking back home.

Those who arrived in Calais were there because of its proximity to England, perceived, rightly or wrongly, as being more tolerant of migrants who reached the scepter’d isle. The cliffs of Dover are visible on sunny days; the entrance of the Chunnel a few miles away.

Hamada was born in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. He had walked across Sudan and Libya before finding passage to Marseilles, and eventually Calais. Hamada gave Shane a guided tour of this overcrowded camp, perched on the fringes of Europe. A limbo of the worst kind.

The next day, a text arrived from Hamada: We want to cook for you. She responded in disbelief, but Hamada insisted - we want to celebrate your coming. We want to cook for you. Let that sink in for a moment…

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,
for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.[3]

These two stories remind us that being hospitable is being in relationship, connected to other people in God, no matter their circumstances…or ours.

These acts of radically hospitable love are the hallmark of the abundant life Jesus wishes for us: life that is lived not by grabbing but by releasing, not by hoarding but by giving, not by ruling but by serving.

The One who, though in form of God, did not deem equality with God as something to be grasped at,[4] kneels down and washes the feet of his friends. I imagine that the disciples were embarrassed by their dirty feet. Their feet were caked with dirt and manure, and having someone touch them, hold them, and wash them—especially the person who had been your teacher and mentor and leader for the last few years—would feel really vulnerable.

And maybe they were embarrassed about more than just their feet. Maybe Judas felt shame because he knew in his heart he was going to betray Jesus. Maybe Peter felt afraid to let go of the way things were, the order he knew.

And who among us doesn’t have things that we’d rather dress up with a nice mani-pedi or a pair of good-looking shoes? The fear of not feeling good enough; the shame of feeling like we have betrayed someone or have been betrayed; the anger or depression or tenderness that we are afraid to express?

When Jesus held the disciples’ caked, callused feet in his hands, he held all that, too— all their vulnerability and all their shame and all their fear. Just so, Jesus holds us—even the parts of ourselves that we’d rather no one see—accepting our blisters, and calluses, and all the dirt that has been caked onto our feet (and into our heart) over the years.

Let’s not fool ourselves. It can be unbelievably difficult to let God love us. And yet, my sisters and brothers, it is precisely here, in this awkward and vulnerable place that Jesus gives his commandment: love one another.

Love one another as I have loved you: see what is most vulnerable and tender in one another, and hold that just as Jesus held the disciples’ dirty, rough feet.

Love one another as I have loved you: see what is most vulnerable and tender in yourself, and let that be held in love, without fear or shame.

Tonight is different from all other nights because, in giving us a new commandment, Jesus offers us a do-over. Jesus offers to liberate us from our fears and gives us the grace and strength to respond.

Remember again what we sang earlier: The mystery hid from ages past / is here revealed in word and sign, / for Jesus’ story is our own; / new life through death is God’s design.[5]

God’s design. Whatever we do because of this night will transform someone else's life as well as our own. Whatever action we take to love one another takes us one step closer to the redemption of the world. Whatever we risk of our own comfort and tranquility will be used by God to restore others who are lost and loveless and broken.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, let this night be different from all other nights. Let Jesus enfold you this night; let Jesus transform you this night. For, by this everyone will know that you are his disciples, if you have love for one another. Amen.



[1] Delores Dufner, “Three Holy Days.”

[2] Samuel Crossman, 1664.

[3] Hebrews 13:2.

[4] Philippians 2:6.

[5] Dufner, “Three Holy Days.”

 


 190414

 
Palm Sunday
Year C
April 14, 2019
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson
Isaiah 50:4-9a 
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 23:1-49

 

In the Name of God: Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Don’t you love a parade? Who doesn’t? There’s the anticipation of getting up early to get ready...the joyful confusion in finding parking...seeing old friends...who has the cooler?... making sure you have your banners and palms...getting in line...

Finally, we’re ready! The crowd sizzles with anticipation. You can hear the music getting closer. Any minute now... then – wait, here he comes!

The excitement is almost unbearable! What a great morning! We’re going to meet the King! Blessèd is he who cometh in the name of the Lord! Hosanna to the Son of David!

And, then….

And, then, without warning, we are fast-forwarded into an horrific, unreal series of events: betrayal, anguish and degradation, all of which lead to one of the most ghastly and painful deaths known.

Wait a minute! Something’s gone terribly wrong. This procession is headed out to Golgotha. This not the parade I joined. Look! I have the flyer!

This is supposed to be a happy day. Is this some appalling joke gone horribly wrong? At the very least, can’t we wait on the Crucifixion until Friday?

Can’t we? Right? C’mon – right?

Well, half right…

Half right because, as we begin Holy Week, as we move closer to center of the labyrinth of Lent, there’s a lot of tension in the air. There’s a lot of tension in the liturgy.

Half right because our faith almost always involves tension and contradiction. Palm Sunday is disconcerting precisely because it highlights the contradictions that Jesus knew. On the one hand, adoration; on the other, abandonment.

And there’s nothing we hate more than contradiction or disharmony, right? We really want to believe that something is either right or wrong, it’s this or it’s that. And yet, today, we walk through some other realities, some other truths. Much as it makes us squirm, we eagerly join the parade into Jerusalem, and we follow the procession out to gawk at Calvary. We all yell “Hosanna!” and we all cry “Crucify him!”

Our journey through Holy Week draws us deeply into a dense web of contradictions (parataxes): strength is concealed in humility; betrayal is hidden in friendship; victory is veiled in defeat; life is shrouded in death; God is emptied out into human form. It’s no wonder that Paul told the Corinthians that the Crucifixion is a stumbling block and foolishness (1 Cor. 1:23).

The Passion is the central story of our faith, and Luke gives us a gripping drama, brimming with details that we know well. Maybe too well. I think that sometimes it’s easy to get stuck in the details...well, some of the details, anyway.

It’s no wonder that we are of two minds today. For some, this is one of the happiest Sundays of the year with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. For others, today is gloomy, and the Passion is simply the saddest story ever told.

But, let’s remember that the details of the story were written down long after the events had taken place – sometime around the year 85. About twenty-five years earlier, before the Gospel writers begin to piece together the “who” and the “what” of the Passion, Paul is writing to the church at Philippi about the “why.”

Paul weaves into his letter an even earlier Christian hymn that aches with beauty about the God who loves us so thoroughly, so deeply, that he pours himself out to be born in human likeness.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

 

Human likeness. Like you; like me.

In the flesh, Jesus becomes obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross, that shameful, degrading, excruciating instrument of execution. Our God, on the Cross. Now, there’s a contradiction – stumbling block and foolishness, indeed.

What in the world is going on here? Or, more beautifully, in the words of Samuel Crossman in the hymn My Song is Love Unknown (H-458):

O, who am I

that for my sake

my Lord should take

frail flesh and die?

Who are we, indeed, that God thought we were worth his very life? Our God, on the Cross. How can this be? When I was a boy, adults always seemed to have the same answer for this kind of question: the answer was “Because.”

But as Christians, we know that the answer to this question is, simply, “Love.” The self-giving love of God that means we never have to fear that our final fate is to be abandoned in a forgotten grave.

The self-giving love, the pouring-out love, of God in Jesus saves us from death. This is the love of God in Jesus that also calls us to a lifelong journey in the Way of the Cross.

I don’t think that God calls us to the “what” – to get fixated on the specifics of Jesus’ passion alone. I do think that God calls us to live into the “why” – to live into a life of self-offering love both to God and to one another.

As we move together as a community through the labyrinth of Holy Week to Easter, Jesus invites us to pick up our cross and follow him. It may not be the parade we imagined, but it is the parade that leads to life.

When you look at your palm branch after today, remember not just the “what” and “how” of today’s tragic and finger-pointing drama. Remember also the why of God’s immense, boundless love poured out for you. Let the palm branch be for you both a souvenir and a street sign, pointing the way forward to this particular parade, the of Holy Week and the Way of the Cross.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, that as you follow Him in the way of the Cross, you may find it to be none other than the way of life and peace. Amen.

 

 
 

 190407

 
Lent V, Year C
April 7, 2019
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Reverend Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

Things are beginning to look up, aren’t they? The equinox has come, the angle of the sun has shifted again. The flowers are pushing their way up. We can smell that spring has begun, even on damp and chilly days.

The Scriptures today also speak of newness. Blooming. Restoration. There’s something in the air.

To the Children of Israel returning from exile, Isaiah says: I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth – do you not perceive it?

The Psalmist sings out: when the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.

And in his letter to the Philippians, Paul forgets what lies behind – his own heritage, his resume of righteousness – and strains forward to what lies ahead.

In a similar manner, today’s Gospel from John has a breathless intensity about it. It’s like a final uphill climb on the rollercoaster of John’s narrative. And in this calm before the storm, John tells us about a dinner party in Bethany, at the home of the sisters Martha and Mary, and their newly-raised-from-the-dead brother, Lazarus.

At some point in the proceedings, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with extravagantly expensive nard, and then dries his feet with her hair. I am about to do a new thing¸ indeed!

This story was important enough to early Christians to have been included in all four Gospels.[1] The details differ between the accounts, but they all feature Jesus, a woman, costly ointment and the anger of one of the disciples; in this case, Judas.

But our concern today is John’s telling. We hear John begin a kind of countdown: six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany. The tensions that had swirled around Jesus and his teachings had reached a new level, and when Jesus raised Lazarus, they reached a tipping point. Jesus was at a point of no return with the religious establishment, and could no longer be ignored or dismissed as a kook.

After Jesus had raised Lazarus, Caiaphas the High Priest says, “Don’t you get it? If he stirs up the people, it will provoke the Romans, who will come in and destroy our holy place and our nation. So, isn’t it better to have one man die for the people instead?”

“So,” the text says, “from that day on they planned to put him to death.”

We often know as the end of something approaches, don’t we? Maybe it’s a slowdown in the number of emails or texts from someone we thought was as deeply involved with us as we were with them. Or, think about when your family pet’s health begins to fail. Sickness and decline have their own particular auras, don’t they?

Sometimes these things happen gradually enough that we really may not notice them. More often, I think, we DO notice them, and file the experience under “I’ll look more closely at this when I really have the time to think about it.” And that file folder is labeled “Denial.”

And because, at some level, we DO know about these turns in the road – our minds and hearts often take measures of their own to protect us; to make it not so. Knowing that our expectations are going to be dashed, we try to assure ourselves that all will be well – at least for now.

Having just experienced the death (and then the un-death) of their brother Lazarus, Mary and Martha know something about the confusing contours of illness and waiting, of anointing and nard, of death and its reversal. I suspect that feelings are very raw in the house that night. Everyone knows something’s going on.

And you know what happens when people get anxious…they start picking at one another, criticizing one another. They start counting the cost of every little thing, losing sight of the big picture and missing the point.

But not Mary. Mary of Bethany, who sees what others miss. Mary, who knows that she has Jesus with her now, and brings all of her overflowing and breaking heart to the table to offer a costly and fragrant gift to her beloved friend.

Mary whose love for Jesus is a mirror of God’s love for us. After all, isn’t this the message of the Cross and the tomb? That there’s nothing stingy, nothing miserly about God’s love for us?

In John’s Gospel, in the very next chapter after this one, at the last meal with his disciples, there is no account of what we call the institution of the Eucharist. Jesus doesn’t take bread and bless and break it and say, “Take, eat.” Instead, the way John tells the story, Jesus gets up and ties a towel around himself and pours water in a basin and washes the disciples’ feet.

That is what Jesus wants his followers to do. But he doesn’t just tell them, he shows them. “Do as I say,” he says, “and as I do.” Mary of Bethany, our teacher for today, models that lesson beautifully, acting from her heart, responding to all that Jesus has been in her life.


And then there’s the angry outburst from Judas. To borrow from the 1970 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar[2], Judas explodes at her

Woman your fine ointment, brand new and expensive
Should have been saved for the poor.
Why has it been wasted? We could have raised maybe
Three hundred silver pieces or more.
People who are hungry, people who are starving
They matter more than your feet and hair!

And Jesus responds:

Surely you’re not saying we have the resources
To save the poor from their lot?
There will be poor always, pathetically struggling.
Look at the good things you’ve got.
Think while you still have me!
Move while you still see me!
You’ll be lost, and you’ll be sorry when I’m gone.

 

How do we hear this exchange? Does Jesus’ rebuke of Judas feel like a slap in the face? Let’s be honest, aren’t we be tempted to agree with Judas, “Hey, Jesus, what about our mission? You’re always banging on about the poor! Why are we wasting money on expensive perfume?”

Mary Gordon observes that, in this moment, “Jesus insists that beauty matters: that the aesthetic can take precedence over the moral.” Think about your own life: in times of peril or pain, what has comforted you the most? What has carried you through? The plans and platitudes of a pragmatist? Or the lavish and “useless” gestures of someone who loves you?

When Jesus says, “you always have the poor with you,” many commentators think he’s referring to a verse in Deuteronomy (15:11), whose message about poverty and generosity is crystal clear: “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be openhanded.” In other words, the call to care for the poor is constant. It never ceases.

On one hand, Mary’s extravagance merits Jesus’s blessing. On the other hand, Judas’s criticism earns Jesus’s rebuke. Why? Mary responds to the call of love in the moment. In the now.

As Episcopal priest Reagan Humber remarks: “What won’t always be with us is the opportunity to see God in whatever and whomever stands in front of us right now. The kingdom of God is here. Right now is the moment when God can break our hearts. The love of God is the grace of now.”

Just as the love of God is found in the beautiful, and in the present moment, the love of God is also found in our own bodies. You and I are products of a culture that treats bodies with ambivalence and scorn.

We see our bodies as things to shrink, starve, conquer, or tame. The world exalts an unrealistic sense of air-brushed perfection, causing us to concentrate on our flaws. (“Oh, you like this outfit? Thank you, but if only…) But this vessel of God-ordained dignity and beauty is also a vehicle for worship, love, hospitality, and grace.

We are a people created in the flesh by God; and we are called by Jesus to break bread, share wine, shed tears, and wash feet. Mary’s gesture reminds me that if we won’t see our own bodies as God's temple, if we won't embrace them as pleasing and delightful to our Creator, we won’t be able to embrace anyone else’s.

In many ways, this Gospel story is a trailer (with spoilers!) for the events to come in our journey to the empty tomb of Easter. All the elements are there: Jesus. A meal. Washing of feet. The protestations and denial of the disciples. The inability to see what was happening right in front of their faces. And, at the last, the clear sight of a woman, who sees Jesus for all that he really was.

John has started the timer: six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany. And this story is a doorway into sacred time, that time beyond time when we, as the Prayer Book says, “contemplate on the mighty acts of God.” As we move together through the mysteries of the coming weeks, look for the love of God in the beautiful; look for the love of God in the present moment; and look for the love of God in your very own body.

In the Great Thanksgiving, we pray “we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies.” In these holy days I urge you to bring your most valuable asset – your time – and step into the sacred time of Holy Week.

On Maundy Thursday, join with others in fellowship at table. Then, at the liturgy, move beyond your squeamishness and allow someone to wash your feet. On Good Friday, spend time in word and song and silence at the foot of the Cross. Then, on Easter Day, bring to the tomb your overflowing and breaking heart to anoint the body of your crucified friend. And God’s promise to make all things new rings true once more. And those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. Amen.



[1] Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 7, John 12.

[2] Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice 

 
 

 190331

 
Lent IV, Year C
March 31, 2019
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Reverend Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

In today’s Gospel lesson, you may have noticed that there is a gap. We began with verses 1-3 of chapter 15: All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them this parable.

In fact, Jesus tells them three parables: the one about the lost sheep; the one about the lost coin; then, at last the one we hear today: the one we call the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

I imagine that most of you, like me, were in Sunday School when you first heard this story about the boy who ran, the boy who stayed, and the dad who threw the big party.  

And I imagine that most of you have heard this parable so often that the story gets flabby in the retelling, and buried beneath the thumbnail interpretations that get piled on top. You know the sort of thing I mean. The God of the New Testament is a nicer God than the one in the Old Testament. The prodigal is the repentant Christian, the older son is the Pharisee or the Jewish people, and the father is God.

The New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine reminds us that such interpretations not only yank the parable out of its historical context, they lessen the message of Jesus and bear false witness against Jews and Judaism.

I grew up in a time when it was common to interpret parables by drawing a contrast between what Jesus taught and what “the Jews” (or the Pharisees and Scribes) thought. In this scheme, the Parable of the Prodigal Son teaches that God loves sinners, whereas the Jews thought God loved only the righteous and didn’t give a fig about sinners.

But anyone who has read the Bible seriously knows that this doesn’t make any sense…unless you decide to forget about Adam and Eve, and Cain, and David. Or that God repeatedly sent prophets to coax Israel back into relationship with God, who has always been waiting for us to return.

In its original context, the parable of the Prodigal Son would not have been heard as a story of repentance or forgiveness. Instead, the parable’s messages of finding the lost, of reclaiming children, of reassessing the meaning of family offer not only good news, but better news.[1]

So, let’s turn to the story. Jesus’ listeners would recognize the setup, “There was a man who had two sons.” They would instantly remember stories of other brothers: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau.

There was a man who had two sons. Where are you in this story? Who are you in this story? One of them? More? Has it changed over time? And what about this word, “prodigal”?

Even though the word is nowhere in the text of the parable, we are wedded to it. According to the leading authority on such things, Google Dictionary, there are two definitions of prodigal. The first is, I suspect, more familiar: spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant. Its synonyms include spendthrift, improvident, imprudent, immoderate, profligate, thriftless, excessive, intemperate, irresponsible, self-indulgent, wanton.

You might be surprised to learn that prodigal’s other meaning is having or giving something on a lavish scale. In other words, generous, liberal, unstinting, unsparing, bountiful, copious, profuse.

With this in mind, we could call this the Parable of Prodigal Son, or the Parable of the Prodigal Father.

True, the son wasted his inheritance on dissolute living in a distant land, but his father seems free and even wasteful in lavishing his wealth (robe, ring, fatted calf) on a son who seems to have come home more out of desperate starvation and calculated self-interest than in what any of us would consider sincere repentance.

“Sincere repentance.” Now, that’s a phrase you can just hear thundering around inside the skull of the Resentful Son – the one who refused to join the celebration.

And what of the Prodigal Father, the Father who didn’t refuse his younger son’s request to go off into the world. The Father who waited until the son came to himself and came home, whatever the reason. The Father who, upon seeing his son approaching, ran to meet him, and interrupted his well-rehearsed speech rejoicing in lavish love. The Father who forgives before the confession is begun. This is the same Father who goes out into the evening to plead with his older son to come to himself and come inside to rejoice…with the family.

The sons worry about things (or lack of things, or the distribution of things). The father worries about the restoration of both of his sons.


The first century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (~20 BCE - ~50 CE) wrote that parents don’t just stop thinking about “their wastrel (asoton) children but . . . lavish their kindness on the wastrels more than on the well behaved. . . In the same way, God too . . . takes thought also for those who live a misspent life, thereby giving them time for reformation.”[2]

Since the challenge is to get the wayward to return, I wonder if the three parables in Luke 15 (lost sheep, lost coin, prodigal son) aren’t misnamed. They’re about finding, and restoration and rejoicing! The shepherd who left the 99 sheep to search out the one that was lost shouted, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” The woman who lost one of her ten silver coins and turned the house upside down to find it cried out, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that was lost.” The father with two sons says: “We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” Maybe we should hear about the found sheep, the found coin, the restored son.

+ + +

I am not an eldest child, but I am the middle of five. And that position gave me plenty of opportunity to decry my parents’ indulgence of my younger brother and sister. From such urgent and earthshattering issues as the length of hair to the hour of bedtime, they were allowed more at a younger age. It’s just not fair!

In Sunday School, I was taught that you never wanted to be the younger “sinning” son, and that to be the “righteous” older son meant you just had to suck it up. But, I wonder…I wonder that both sons were lost to the father. One to irresponsibility, the other to self-righteousness.

So, those who imagine themselves in the older brother’s place will surely face their own struggles with self-righteousness, and will have to make the difficult decision to join the party, or to stay out in the cold with their principles.[3] Principles and resentments rarely keep us warm.

+ + +

One of the many questions you might ponder in these last weeks of Lent is, “how do I respond to mercy?” What do we do when faced with the overwhelming and unconditional love of God, usually manifest in the people who love us? Or, when that love is showered on someone else? Someone who, how do you say, hasn’t earned it?

Fortunately, we worship a prodigal God who loves us so extravagantly that God simply will not give up on us, not let go of us, not turn away from us… ever.

For us, here, today, this parable, no matter what you choose to call it, leaves a lot of questions on the table:

Who are you in this story? How will your own story turn out?

What paths will you follow? How lost might you become?

Will you be lost in a strange place, or lost within yourself?

For example, we love to sing “Amazing Grace,” yet shrink from naming ourselves as “wretch.” Can we be found if we’ve never been lost?

As we walk towards another celebration of Easter, what is the resurrection you long for in this season?

Where are the dead places, the lifeless experiences, the heavy burdens that block your new life?

Will you allow yourself to be found?

Will you allow yourself to be embraced by God? By your family?

Will you allow yourself to love more than you judge?

Even when it’s not fair?

Will you allow yourself just to join the party?

Deep in this season of Lent, the Good News is this: A parent had two children, and loved them both, even (perhaps especially?) in the ways that they had become lost. The parent wanted only to welcome both children home.

Because that’s what love is.

Amen.



[1] Amy-Jill Levine, “What the Prodigal Son story doesn’t mean,” Christian Century, September 3, 2014.

[2] Philo, On Providence.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Prodigal Father,” in The Preaching Life.

 


190324

 
Lent III, Year C
March 24, 2019
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Reverend Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 103:1-11
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

 

In the name of God, the great I AM,

whom we worship as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Today, the Scriptures invite us to confront two of the BIG questions: Who? and Why? When Moses has his first conversation with God through the burning bush, and God tells Moses there’s a job for him in Egypt, he balks. But God assures him, “Don’t worry, I’ll be there with you.” Not convinced, Moses pushes back, “but if I’m going to go back to Egypt where, by the way, I’m wanted for murder, to bring the Israelites out, why in the world should they listen to me? Who am I that you should send me? And, by the way, just exactly who are you, and what do I tell them your name is?”

Now God had already said, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Shouldn’t that be enough? Apparently, not for Moses, and in a striking and unique revelation, God says, “I AM THAT I AM.” God mentions nothing about being the creator of the universe, or about being the God any particular acreage, or about possessing any specific attribute or accomplishment. What God gives to Moses, and to us, is simply a statement of being. I AM. Period.

But the scriptures are packed with stories of how we don’t trust that God is who God is. In the hurly-burly of daily life, a God who simply IS is simply not enough. We demand more from our God. We want a God who’s a little less spiritual, and a lot more action-packed.

We want to watch those gruesome plagues beset the Egyptians. We want to see water from the rock and taste manna from heaven. We want a God who DOES. And often as not, we want a God who does for us and against those we don’t much care for; maybe some of those Galileans, or those unlucky folks killed in a construction accident.

In the part of Luke’s Gospel that we hear today, Jesus is surrounded by crowds, and the din of questions about the future grows deafening as Jesus draws nearer to the wilderness of Golgotha. “What will God do?” “What will God do for us?” “What will God do to us?” Jesus asks some not-quite rhetorical questions - “do you think that the Galileans Pilate killed were worse sinners?” or “what about the 18 who were killed when that tower fell on them at Siloam? What about them? What did they do? What did God do?”

Biblical commentators often take this occasion to mention how Jesus tackles the so-called “simplistic conventions” of the time - that catastrophic events were God’s judgment on the sins of the victims. But these “simplistic conventions” don’t belong exclusively to antiquity. They are part of our everyday experience.

We too easily remember September 11th, the devastation in Mozambique and the Midwest, or massacres in New Zealand, followed by all the finger-pointing of those who would blame the victims for their own plight. While it is tempting to label these folks and their ilk as simplistic, if not malevolent, we ought to avoid the wilderness of smugness, for what they do is what we all do.

The gossip mongers in today’s Gospel ask a question as old as the human race: why? Why did these terrible things happen? Why is there so much pain in the world? Why does a good God allow human suffering?

And, in that whole time, we’ve failed to find answers that satisfy us. Still, we can’t stop asking the questions. We long for a “Theory of Everything” when bad stuff happens. We look for platitudes like “there are no coincidences” to help us make sense of the senseless.

And what is Jesus’ response to, “why”? He tells a story about a fig tree. And, in telling that story, Jesus beckons us away from shallow answers and theories that don’t heal. Instead, he invites us into a story which opens up possibilities. Stories include us; stories unmake us; stories transform us. Why did those Galilean Jews die? Why did the tower fall? Okay, sit down, let me tell you about a fig tree…

The parable Jesus tells invites us to fall into the story itself, and when we’re standing inside it, we see questions coming from several directions at once. I might suggest three to start.

In what ways am I like the absentee landowner, standing apart from where actual life happens? Am I prone to look for loss and scarcity in the world — or for potential and possibility? Where in my life — or in the lives of others — have I prematurely called it quits, saying, “There’s no life here worth cultivating. Cut it down.”

In what ways am I like the fig tree? Under nourished? Unable or unwilling to nourish others? In what ways do I feel hopeless or ignored? What kinds of tending might bring me back to life? Am I willing to receive such care? Could I dare to flourish in a world where I have been invisible?

In what ways am I like the gardener? Where in my life am I willing to accept Jesus’s invitation to go elbow-deep into the muck and manure? Am I willing to sacrifice time, effort, love, and hope into this tree — this relationship, this cause, this tragedy, this injustice — with no guarantee of a fruitful outcome?[1]

When we ask “why,” we are both seeking a cause and looking for someone to blame. WE need a THEM. We need to know that they got what was coming to them so that we feel more righteous, more virtuous, more secure. It’s like whistling in the graveyard. It makes us think that we’re in control, the control that humanity has been trying to wrest from God since Adam and Eve believed the serpent’s big lie.

The story of the fig tree, on the other hand, allows us to begin to see that there is no “us” and “them.” At some point, we are all the landowner, and the tree, and the gardener. All of us are beloved, all of us are perishing, and all of us need the care of a hopeful, patient gardener. The great good news of today is that we have such a gardener – we are loved by the great I AM.

On that day in the wilderness at Horeb, God stepped through boundaries of the natural order into a bush that burned but was not consumed to reveal I AM to Moses. When unable to convince us through the Law and the Prophets of the futility of trying to be God, God again stepped through the natural order to become fully human - to become like us in everything except sin. And, not counting equality with God as something to be grasped at (Phil 2), Jesus stepped into the very wilderness we fear most - death - and ransomed us forever from its power.

My brothers and sisters, we have not one iota of control over death as the fate of us all, in spite of our quixotic quest for accomplishment or glory or better cholesterol levels. Like the Collect says, “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.”

At the same time, there is not a single thing that we can do that will make God love us more. Not a single thing. Each Lent we have the opportunity to learn, again, to trust God’s promise and to relax into that love.

As the late Robert Farrar Capon reminded us, “in Baptism and Eucharist, in Confession and Absolution, and in all the priestly acts of the Church, we’re celebrating what Jesus has already done, not negotiating with God to get him to do it.” (The Foolishness of Preaching, 37)

So, the next time someone (or that pesky voice inside your own head) asks you, “Who are you?” you can answer in full voice – “I am one who is loved by the great I AM.” For you are. Amen.



[1] Debie Thomas. Journey with Jesus.

 


 190317

 
The Second Sunday in Lent, Year C
March 17, 2019
The Reverend Dr. Paul A. Jacobson
 
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:31-35

 

Grace to you, and peace from God our Father
and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In today’s gospel, Jesus says, “I must be on my way.” I’m not sure that this was the inspiration for Groucho Marx’s famous quip centuries later (in Animal Crackers), “Hello, I must be going.”[1] But “I must be on my way” was a prophecy of Jesus’ own life and death, and an image of our life in God.

Strike up a conversation anywhere, from Starbuck’s to Stop and Shop, and you will meet someone who is not “from here.” Where I grew up, it was known as being “from away.” Some people are here because they made a decision to be here – a new job or a new relationship, or to care for ailing relatives. Others have found this a good place to retire. Still others find themselves here more by accident than plan.

What do you say when someone asks, “Where are you from?” or “Where’s home?” For many of us, the answers are long and complicated. Some of us come from many places; some come from places they can scarcely bear to remember.

Home has become more a concept than a location – here today, there tomorrow.

I recall a brief, but wrenching, exchange with my mother many years ago when she was living in Portland, OR, and I in New Haven. Neither was a place where I had grown up. At some point, she asked, “When are you coming home?” And, without much thought, I replied, “I am home.” Because I was. It took the next fraction of a second to hear her sharp intake of breath and realize what she was really asking…but that is another sermon.

We may be a very mobile folk in the US, but our society is far from typical. In other places and times, home was where you were born, where you grew up, took your parents’ place at their trade or work, you married, raised your children (and grandchildren) and died. Home was permanent, fixed and local. Home wasn’t just where the heart was, it’s where everything was.

Among the ancients (and still in many places) the gift of land was a gift of identity, of belonging, of home. In our religious heritage, we trace our origins to Abram’s epic journey from Ur of the Chaldeans to the land which God promised to give him. But that promised land was not local. The land that God promised Abram was far, far, far away. The very wandering of Abram became a marker of identity for the children of Israel: “A wandering Aramean my father was” (Deuteronomy 26.5).

Fast-forward centuries later, and we see Jesus crossing back and forth across this same promised land “casting out demons and performing cures.” He makes his way from his home in Nazareth – where he is rejected by his own townspeople (remember what happened there? Rapture to rage!) – to the holy city of Jerusalem.

From the story of Abram to the story of Jesus we’ve moved from “A wandering Aramean my Father was” to “the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” But the land promised to those who heed Jesus’ voice does not consist of acres and square footage but of the very kingdom of heaven. There is the kingdom of heaven that is promised to come. And, more importantly for our consideration today, there is the kingdom that is “already within you” and around you, in the here and now.

Let’s pause here and now for a moment and look at the timeline of Jesus’ journey to the Cross. Two weeks ago, just after the Transfiguration, we heard Luke tell us that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). And it’s natural to think that he makes a beeline for Jerusalem, because our season of Lent has just 40 days (plus Sundays). And Jesus himself says “Today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way.”

In Luke’s gospel, though, that journey covers ten chapters – TEN – nearly half the gospel. And as my colleague David Lose points out, “if you slow down and pay attention to these ten chapters, it’s impossible not to notice that no matter how determined Jesus may be to get to Jerusalem, he nevertheless takes time along the way to heal those who are ill, to teach his disciples and the crowds who follows him, to engage his opponents, to bless children, to restore to the community those who have been pushed to the side, to liberate those held captive to spirits that would rob them of abundant life, to share stories about God’s unending love, to argue for persistence in prayer and the pursuit of justice, and to lament all those who refuse God’s embrace and cling instead to the protections and prizes of the world.”[2]

Even the Pharisees’ warning (“Psst! Herod wants to kill you!”) doesn’t keep him from his appointed rounds. Remember, Herod is the one who executed his cousin, John the Baptist! “I have work left to do,” he tells them, “and I won’t be deterred by the machinations of a bully.” Jesus knows exactly what fate awaits him in Jerusalem, but he won’t change course. Not for Herod, not for anyone.

What might this tell us? It tells us that the God of love is at work even here, even now, wherever we may be. And it tells is that what we do, here and now, wherever we may be, matters.

When we are intentional about hugging our children, greeting our neighbor, befriending a stranger, comforting one who grieves, smiling at one who is afraid, standing up for those who are being overlooked, including those who are excluded, welcoming someone who is different, caring for those in need… all these things matter. A lot.”[3]

And then. And then, we hear of yet another heart wrenching event of hatred and violence, this time in Christchurch, New Zealand. Fifty dead. Fifty more injured. And people of faith gather and say, seriously, God, what the heck!?

God does not promise us freedom from harm. Lent is, after all, the season when we recall just how vulnerable we are, how human we are. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

On the other hand, God does promise us a hiding place. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings? When danger approaches, a mother hen plants herself in the hot center of her children’s terror, and offers refuge there. She rises up with with indignation, fear, and courage. What Jesus gives us is his own body, his own life. Wings outstretched, heart exposed, shade and warmth and shelter at the ready.

What Jesus promises — at great risk to himself — is the making of his very being into a place of refuge and return for his children. For all of his children — even the ones who want to stone and kill him.[4]

These ten chapters matter. If we forget to tell the stories of what Jesus did before arriving at Jerusalem, it’s easy to imagine that the crucifixion was just another senseless, even unjust death. But Jesus didn’t die accidentally. He died precisely because he gave attention to those the world deemed insignificant while proclaiming a God who embraced and loved all. Not a few, not some, not even most. God embraces and loves all.

What Jesus does across these ten chapters calls you to witness that love of God to the world. Sometimes it’s just a smile. Sometimes it means putting on your big old mother hen suit and placing your very self as shelter between another child of God and the harm of hatred and bigotry. You are called to witness to the love of a God who will not give up on God’s people. Ever. And through your acts of love, God is still at work in you and through you for the sake of the world.

Thousands of years ago, God called Abram from his home in “Ur of the Chaldeans,” to an unknown Promised Land; Jesus also followed God’s call to move inexorably toward Jerusalem. In the same way, God calls all of us from our old homes, out of temporary places of comfort and familiarity, to new homes with him, in places we can’t yet see from here.

In the meantime, there is much work to do.

God told Abram, “Do not be afraid.” God speaks the same words to us. Like a mother hen, Jesus constantly gathers us, all of us, to home.

We must be about our work, and we must be on our way, singing with the Psalmist:

One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek;

That I may dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Amen.

 


[1] From the 1928 musical “Animal Crackers.”

[2] David Lose, In the Meantime.

[3] DL.

[4] Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus.

 


190310

 
 I -C
10 March 2019
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

 

Grace and peace to you from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

In today’s Gospel from Luke, we hear of Jesus being led into the wilderness by the Spirit, where he stayed for 40 days. I suspect that, for most of us, when we find ourselves on the edge of the wilderness, or deep in the middle of one – we can hardly believe that God would ever lead us to such a place, can we? We are much more likely to resonate with Mark’s account; where Jesus is driven, forced, into the wilderness.

I think we all have some experience of wilderness. What might that look like? A hospital waiting room? Your living room when your spouse or children haven’t come home? The parking lot where you couldn’t find your car on the day you lost your job? Or the back seat of a patrol car? Maybe, your desert is the one in the middle of your own chest, where you begged for a word from God and heard nothing but the wheezing bellows of your own breath.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty. No food. No earthly power. No special protection – just a Bible-quoting devil and a whole bunch of sand.”[1]

We call this time of year “Lent,” from an Old English word meaning “spring.” Not just the springtime of flowers, but also the greening of the human soul. And what successful gardener has never picked up pruning shears?

When the Spirit leads you into the wilderness, instead of thinking that you need to punish yourself, perhaps you can see a time of pruning away the old, the extra, the useless – all those things that insulate you from each other; and isolate you from God. Spring cleaning is another image that comes to mind!

In some ways, Jesus’s struggle in the wilderness brings the ancient story of human temptation full circle. Remember the questions that the serpent posed to Adam and Eve in the lushness of the first garden? “Can you be like God?” “Will you dare to know what God knows?”

In the barren wilderness, the clever devil turns these questions upside down, and asks Jesus: “Can you be fully human? Can you exercise restraint? Abdicate power? Accept danger? Can you bear what it means to be mortal?”

In those forty days, Jesus learns how to experience love in a bleak and lonely wasteland. He learns to trust that he can be, is, beloved and famished, precious and insignificant, valued and vulnerable at the same time.[2]

What would it feel like if we could relax into knowing that, whatever wilderness we are flailing around in, God is giving us what we need – even if it’s not what we want? Does God will bad things to happen to us? Does God want us to suffer? I think the answer is no.

Does it mean that God can redeem even the most barren periods of our lives? Does it mean that, if we choose to stay and pay attention, our wilderness can become holy even as it remains dangerous? That answer is yes.

I want to make one more point. At the end of the story, we hear, When the devil had finished every test, he departed…until an opportune time. You can almost hear Arnold Schwarzenegger’s voice saying. “I’ll be back.”

Why is this important? Because it means that the devil is not always here! Jesus, though famished and exhausted, knew that God the Holy Spirit IS here – always has been, always will be. God is always here; the devil is just a visitor.

Even on our hardest days, we can try to remember this. The Holy Spirit is ALWAYS near at hand – usually far closer to us than we can imagine.

When you received ashes on Wednesday, the priest didn’t trace an “L” on your forehead for “Loser.” Instead, you were invited to remember your humanity. In the same way, Lent is not about doing penance for being human. Lent is a time to embrace all that it means to be human. Human and hungry. Human and vulnerable. Human and beloved.

So, when you find yourself in the wilderness or just in the car on the way to the wilderness – hold fast in your heart the constant presence of God, who will “command his angels concerning you:” that “they shall bear you in their hands, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”

Amen.



[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, http://day1.org/1756-the_wilderness_exam.

[2] Debie Thomas, posted on JourneywithJesus.net.

 


190303

 
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
March 3, 2019
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Reverend Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-43a

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I want to start today with a question. Can you think of a time when you knew that you were in the presence of something Holy? Something holy that had something to say to you? In today’s Gospel, Luke gives us two such times: one on the mountain, one down below. One glorious and well-known, the other painful and less-known. Listen to this imaginative retelling.

“On the mountaintop, Jesus erupts into sudden light. As his sleepy disciples cower in the grass, two figures appear out of time and space. In solemn tones, they speak of Jerusalem, departure, and accomplishment. In response, the disciples babble – “This is good! Let’s make tents! Let’s stay here forever!” Then a cloud descends, thick and impenetrable. As it envelops the disciples, they fall to their faces, perhaps anticipating death. But a Voice addresses them, tender and gentle. The Voice hums with delight, and the disciples, a bit braver now, glance up. They gaze at Jesus –the Shining One – and a Father’s pure joy sings with the stars: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”

“Meanwhile, in the valley, a boy writhes in the dust. He shrieks and drools, and his eyes – wide-open and feral – see nothing but darkness. Around him a crowd gathers and swells, eager for spectacle. Scribes jeer, and Jesus’ disciples wring their hands in embarrassment. “Frauds!” someone yells into the night. “Where’s your Master? Why has he left you?” “We don’t know,” the disciples mutter, gesturing vaguely at the mountain. Fear and exhaustion rage as they watch the boy claw at his own face. A voice – strangled, singular – pierces the night. “This is my son!” a man cries out as he pushes through the crowd to gather the convulsing boy into his arms. Everyone stares as the father cradles the child against his chest. “Please,” he sobs to the stars. “Please. This is my beloved son. Listen to him.”[1]

In the midst of trying to hold both of these stories together, we hear Peter say, “Master, it is good for us to be here.” Good to be here. Really? What does it mean that these two episodes, stretched as they are between fullness and emptiness, between ecstasy and despair, between light and shadow, share a landscape in this narrative? And, what might it mean that there are two beloved sons?

Perhaps we might start by thinking about where “here” is. “Here” is a thin place. Barbara Brown Taylor describes them like this.

“Thin places are transparent places or moments, set apart by the quality of the sunlight in them, or the shadows, or the silence, or the sounds—see how many variations there are? What they have in common is their luminosity, the way they light an opening between this world and another—I’d [like to] say “between this world and the next,” but that makes it sound like one world has to end before the next one can begin, and a thin place doesn’t work like that. It works to make you more aware of the thin veil between apparent reality and deeper reality. It works to pull aside the veil for just a moment, so you can see through.”[2]

When that the veil is pulled aside you know, you know, that you’re in the presence of something holy, the Really Real – the Most Real.

Sometimes a thin place takes your breath away: when you’re lost in the beauty of a sunset, or a piece of music, or the face of a loved one who’s long been away. A birthing room is a thin place. The altar is a thin place. So are death beds and jail cells. All of these places can offer us a brief, unveiled glimpse of God…because God is always in all those places.

This is why these two seemingly disconnected stories about thin places go together. Must go together. God is in the glory, and God is in the agony. And by being in both the glory and the agony, the arms of God embrace and enfold everything that we will experience; all our hopes and all our fears.

We stand today at another thin place, another crossroads – the eve of our annual Lenten journey. When we want to stand still and build booths, God tells us to listen to Jesus and get moving. We are not called to capture, preserve or fossilize life. We are called to listen and live life – on foot.

On this journey, maybe you’ll hear glory. Maybe I’ll hear agony. Maybe we’ll manage to hear each other. Whatever you hear, don’t flinch. Don’t flee. Don’t assume that one voice must drown out the other. Both voices need to speak. Both voices have much to teach us. So, listen. Listen. Both voices are beloved of a Father, and neither will be abandoned or forgotten.

The Holy has something to say to you, not only in Jesus’ words, but also in his life. A life of the Jesus coming down from the mountaintop, all the way down, into the depths of your life, your vulnerability, your anxiety and your dread. In traveling to Jerusalem, to the cross, to the grave, and through the grave, Jesus embraces and redeems all. All that is hard, difficult, and even despicable in life, in order to wrest life from death itself!

If we can remember that God abides in the both the thin place of glory, and the thin place of agony, we might live in hope knowing that wherever we may go, Christ has already been, and that where Christ is now, we will one day be.

Today’s gospel tells us that Jesus is not afraid of what is difficult in our lives. Jesus will not reject us on account of our failings. Jesus’ coming back down the mountain reminds us that we don’t have to hide the hard parts of our lives from the God we know in Jesus. Indeed, God the Father came to us in and through the Incarnate Son precisely to be with us and for us through thick and thin, through life and death. Indeed, God came in Jesus to be with us through death into new life.

Jesus the Christ is not seeking out a nice single file-line of the pious and the saintly. Jesus seeks out the lost, the damaged, the broken – that’s us, folks. This is precisely the reason that Jesus was born, lived, died and was raised again…that we might know that God is unrelentingly and indefatigably for us!

So, then, trusting in the mercy of the One who came down the mountain – the One who entered the dark places of the world and still seeks out the dark places of our lives -- trusting this One, perhaps we will be honest enough to name what is broken and hurting in our lives and in our world and thereby fear it a little less.

In each and every thin place, especially in the transfigured Christ, and at this altar, God pulls aside the veil to give us a glimpse, a reminder, of our destination: As you walk through the many crossroads of Lent, listen for him; listen to him. Then walk with Jesus in faith, trusting in him daily, constantly, always. Amen.



[1] Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, adapted.

[2] http://floatingintheblue.blogspot.com/2012/04/barbara-brown-taylor-on-thin-places.html

 


190224

 
The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
February 24, 2019
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Reverend Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42
1 Corinthians 15:35-38,42-50
Luke 6:27-38

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In today’s collect, we are reminded that “without love whatever we do is worth nothing,” and that whoever lives without love is “accounted dead” before God. Everything is about love. Everything.

I want you to hold that in the front of your mind as we look at today’s Gospel, the continuation of Luke’s telling of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. From Jesus, we hear very familiar words: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you, et cetera, et cetera and so forth.

What do you hear in these words? Do you hear commands and rules that you dismiss in despair because they seem impossible? Do you hear a Jesus who is naïve – sort of sweet, but a dreamer who just doesn’t get it? Do you hear a really great way to get your neighbors (or your spouse or your children) to behave better?

But let’s remember love. Love might say, these aren’t commands, but promises. Promises that the world in which we live isn’t the only option. Promises of another way. Promises that we can treat others the way we want to be treated. Promises that there is more than enough – enough love, food, attention, time (the list is endless) – enough to go around.

Love tells us that Jesus isn’t giving us a set of rules to get ahead in this world. Instead, Jesus is inviting us into an entirely different sort of world. A promised land that is not about measuring and counting and weighing and competing and judging and paying back and hating and all the rest. Instead, a promised land built on love. Love for those who have loved you. Love for those who haven’t. Love even for those who have hated you.[1]

But wait, you say. Now who’s being naïve? Most of us hold a mechanical view of the world that can be summed up in Newton’s third law of motion: “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

We hear the same thing from Jesus: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.”

At some level, this cause-and-effect scheme is comforting, maybe it even seems fair. You push me, I push you back. This is a closed system, a zero-sum game. Love deserves love, hate deserves hate, deeds should be repaid in kind, force must be returned with force, and on and on and on.

The old saying of “an eye for an eye” makes sense to us. But what’s happened to “without love whatever we do is worth nothing.” Ghandi was famous for saying, “an eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”

Think of the family grudges that have gone on for so long that no one can recall how they got started. In other cases, no one has forgotten; the stories are repeated and repeated, everyone nurturing their own white-hot pokers of anger. How do we get off this crazy downward spiral of blind resentment and endless retaliation? How do we interrupt the ceaseless cycle of cause-and-effect? The answer is simple. Forgiveness.

The Psalmist tells us: “Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil” (Ps 37:9). The answer may be simple; the process less so.

What can we I say about forgiveness? I have my own struggles with injuries I have sustained over the years, both real and imagined, and the people and institutions that inflicted them (also real and imagined).

Maybe it helps to start with what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not denial, forgiveness is not detour, forgiveness is not quick.

First, forgiveness isn’t pretending that an injury doesn’t matter, or that a wound doesn’t hurt. Forgiveness isn’t the same thing as healing or reconciliation. Healing has its own timetable, and sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible.

Second, forgiveness isn’t a shortcut to everyone making nice, or quick fix for our pain. Christianity insists on forgiveness…of others as well as of ourselves. On the way, though, we must mourn, lament and hunger for justice. Forgiveness in the Christian tradition isn’t a palliative; it works hand-in-hand with the hard work of repentance that leads to transformation.

To short-circuit this process leads to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” That is, “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”[2] It’s the same concept as marketing companies telling you that their fast food chain is healthy.

Thirdly, forgiveness is not instant. Not for us…not if we’re honest. Forgiveness is a messy process that can leave us feeling freed up and fine one minute, and bleeding out of every pore the next. And no one who struggles with forgiveness should feel ungodly simply because they struggle.

Long before Joseph forgave his brothers, he wrestled with a strong desire to scare and shame them. Oh wait, he did scare and shame them. Forgiveness was something Joseph had to arrive at slowly and painfully.

If forgiveness is not denial, nor detour, nor quick, what might forgiveness be? What is Jesus asking of us when he asks us to love, bless, pray, give, lend, do good, withhold judgment, extend mercy, and turn the other cheek?

In her popular memoir, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott writes that withholding forgiveness is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.

In thinking about forgiving the unforgiveable, Nora Gallagher says, “Forgiveness is a way to unburden oneself from the constant pressure of rewriting the past. It’s a gesture towards the future. Not for the future as a future in time, but for what the French call avenir, to open the way for what is to come, for the unexpected.”[3]

Describing mistreatment as a chain that binds us, Nadia Bolz-Weber writes “Maybe retaliation or holding onto anger about the harm done to me doesn’t actually combat evil. Maybe it feeds it. Because in the end, if we’re not careful, we can actually absorb the worst of our enemy, and at some level, start to become them. So what if forgiveness, rather than being a pansy way to say, ‘It’s okay,’ is actually a way of wielding bolt-cutters, and snapping the chains that link us? What if it’s saying, ‘What you did was so not okay, I refuse to be connected to it anymore.’?

If these writers are correct, perhaps forgiveness is choosing to replace resentment with love in the foreground of our minds and hearts.

If I insist on rehearsing my well-deserved outrage in every interaction with people, then I’m drinking poison. Choosing forgiveness releases me from the tyranny of holding my boot on the neck of someone, desperately wanting them to admit how wrong they were. Choosing forgiveness allows me to “cast my hunger for justice deep into the heart of Christ, because justice belongs to him, and he’s the only one powerful enough to secure it.”[4] Most importantly, choosing forgiveness promises freedom to the one who can make that choice.

Here’s a story. A priest was talking about forgiveness to a couple preparing to be married. One of them said, “It’s about forgive and forget, right? Just get over it and move on.” The priest responded, “I don’t really buy into the ‘forgive and forget’ thing. Forgive? Absolutely. Forget? I don’t think that’s realistic. Any injury leaves some type of scar, a reminder of what happened. I want you to think instead of ‘forgive and try never to use.’ What does that mean?

That means that on a sunny Saturday morning, when the conversation begins to go sideways and turns to the re-folding of the newspaper, or the direction of the toilet paper… any of those conversations that are about everything except the newspaper or the toilet paper…and tempers begin to flare as you’re busily avoiding the real conversation.

And you know that in the quiver on your back you have that one thing to say that will stop the other person in their tracks, that poison arrow of something they once did to you. That’s the moment to remember ‘forgive and try not to use.’ Because, once you launch that arrow, you can never walk it back, and the harm of that retaliation is untold. Something dies in that moment. If, however, you leave that arrow safely buried in the past, you free up a space for something new to grow.”

Simply put, forgiveness is about love: love which is not a means to an end, but an end unto itself. So, is forgiveness a command? Just one more box to check? If it is, I think we will continue to live out of fear, terrified that someone’s watching. If, on the other hand, forgiveness is a promise, an invitation to deeper love, maybe we can catch a glimpse of that other world, that promised land of new life, in this very moment.

Close your eyes for a moment. … If you can imagine that Jesus is offering an invitation rather than simply giving a new set of rules, everything sounds different: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

With the ears of love, everything sounds different because, well, everything is different. Amen.



[1] David Lose.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 1937.

[3] Nora Gallagher, 2004.

[4] Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus.

 


190217

 
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
February 17, 2019
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Reverend Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
Jeremiah 17:5-10
Psalm 1
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Luke 6:17-26

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today is nothing if not jam-packed full of contrasts. An abbreviation of today’s lessons might read cursed/blessed; happy/unhappy; resurrection/no resurrection; blessed/woe. That all seems a little bleak, so let’s tease out some things, especially about blessings and curses.

In the first reading, we heard Jeremiah saying, “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make flesh their strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land” (Jer. 17:5-6). For the prophet, the heart that turns away from God is deprived of its living strength, cut off from the grace of nourishment, robbed of the fuel of life.

“Happy are those,” says the Psalmist, “who do not follow the way of the wicked” (Ps. 1:1). Logic tells that: Unhappy are those who do follow the way of the wicked and take the path of sinners and sit with scoffers and do not delight in the law of the Lord. They are like chaff that the wind drives away. A life without God is a life without life. A shrub in the desert without the relief of cool water, chaff that the wind drives away.

But, take heart. All is not a dry and weary land without water. The deepest and truest source of life is not far off and is never spent. Again, from Jeremiah, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.”

Now, that sounds more like it, right? And what comes next? “[that tree] shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of the drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit” (Jer. 17:7-8). Blazing heat will come, drought will arrive, and anxieties of every kind will threaten. This is what some of us call life on life’s terms. And those who trust the Lord live in the same world as everyone else. Which brings us to today’s Gospel.

In the passage just before today’s reading begins, Jesus has spent the night in prayer up on the mountain, and selected twelve of the disciples to serve as apostles. When day comes, Jesus brings them all down to a level place, a plain, where a large crowd of all sorts of people (even Gentiles) have gathered. The text tells us that Jesus heals not just a few but all of those who come to him; all those who are diseased and troubled, in every imaginable way. The kept grabbing for Jesus, because power was just pouring out of him.

Jesus comes down to the plain to be with them. With. This is Jesus as Emmanuel – God with us. Neither above nor below, but with us, in relationship with us: “Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place.”

And then we hear what are, at first blush, very familiar words. Ah, the Beatitudes, that’s the lovely Sermon on the Mount, right? But it’s not. In Matthew’s setting of this scene, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke would have us see a much more direct Jesus, “Blessed are you who are poor.” No vague third person “those,” but an in-your-face “you.”

Or, compare Matthew’s softer “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” instead of Luke’s plain old “you who are hungry now.” Luke keeps Jesus’s “Sermon on the Plain” terse, raw and close to the bone.

And how do we who are generally not poor, nor hungry, nor weeping, nor reviled – how do we hear these hard words? In truth, they ought not be news to us. Luke’s gospel is full of the upside-down nature of God’s reign. In Advent, we heard The Magnificat, Mary’s exuberant song that echoed the faith of Hannah many centuries earlier of God’s pattern of transforming grace.

The mighty may be flying high now, but they will be brought low, Mary sang. Those who are pressed down will be lifted up, the empty filled, and those who are full will taste what it feels like to be empty…

The “woes” in the Sermon on the Plain remind us that God examines the human state of affairs and is displeased.

A wise friend once said to me that a parent is usually only as happy as his or her least happy child. I think the biblical witness suggests this may be true of God as well. It’s no wonder Jesus comes to be with them. No wonder he lifts up the lowly as worthy of God’s regard and chastises those who ignore them. God comes to be God and Lord and parent to all.

Gustavo Gutierrez explains this tendency of God: “God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will.”[1]

If you look at the world with even half-opened eyes, you can see that this world is a mess. We Christians believe that we are headed toward a heavenly banquet, where everyone has a place at the table. But, my sisters and brothers, that fulfillment calls on us to work with God and with our companions in this world to get the heavenly banquet started here and now.

In the words of David Holwerda, “The shape of God’s future must shape our present.” The 19th century social reformer Jane Addams, wrote, “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

I think that Luke’s story today reminds us that Jesus comes to all who are in need, from Judea or Jerusalem, or the coast of Tyre and Sidon, or Trumbull, or Monroe. We are all of us poor, hungry, sad and left out in some profound way. We are joined, as it turns out, not by relying on our strength, or trusting in mere mortals, those things that turn our hearts away from God. Instead, we are united in our common need…for God.

For many of us, I suspect, desperate need – for anything – isn’t at the forefront of our everyday living. The commentator Debie Thomas puts it this way: “There isn’t much in my circumstances that leads me to a sense of urgency about ultimate things. I can go for days without talking to God. I can go days without thinking about God. It’s very, very easy — embarrassingly easy — for all things deep and divine to become afterthoughts in my life, because God just isn’t on my 24/7 radar.  This isn’t because I’m callous. It’s because — as Jesus puts it so wisely in his searing sermon — I am already “full.” I have already “received my consolation.” I have easy access to laughter, so I don’t wonder what lessons honest tears might yield. I am primed by my cozy life to live in the shallows, unaware of the treasures that lie waiting in the depths. Most of the time, it just plain doesn’t occur to me that I would be lost — utterly and wholly lost, physically and spiritually — without the grace that sustains me.”

Today, Jesus call us to follow him, to come with him, to be with those he came to help and heal: the poor, the hungry, the broken and the abandoned. Sometimes it’s a scary thing, to reach out to those who seem so different from us. After all, in the words of Frederick Buechner, “The world says, ‘Mind your own business,’ and Jesus says, ‘There is no such thing as your own business.’ The world says, ‘Follow the wisest course and be a success,’ and Jesus says, ‘Follow me and be crucified.’ The world says, ‘Drive carefully — the life you save may be your own’ — and Jesus says, ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ The world says, ‘Law and order,’ and Jesus says, ‘Love.’ The world says, ‘Get’ and Jesus says, ‘Give.’ In terms of the world’s sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.”

So, my friends, do not lose heart, and do not be afraid. We are called to the heavenly banquet. We are also called to get the shopping done, get the meal prepared and the table set, and the invitations delivered – to everyone. Now. It’s work, it’s hard work. We can’t do it alone, but we’re never, ever, on our own. God is with us, always. Remember the words of Jeremiah: “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.” Amen.



[1] “Song and Deliverance” in Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, quoted by R. Alan Culpepper in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Luke.

 


190210

 
 The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Year C
February 10, 2019
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Reverend Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 138
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Luke 5:1-11
 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Most of you know by now that I grew up in the Midwest. If you’ve never been there, the flyover states are a place where signs in front of churches with those moveable letters are virtually required. Church signs are not only an important way to let passersby know what’s coming up, including sermon titles, but they also serve as an arena for competition for church “humor.” Thanks to the internet, you may know the kind of thing I mean:

How will you spend eternity -- Smoking or Nonsmoking?

Don’t wait for the hearse to take you to church.

I went to college in a small town in Illinois. One day, as I was driving back to school along the two-lane state highway that played “dot-to-dot” through a procession of small rural towns, I noticed a church sign that had only one word on it.

Maybe the custodian or the minister hadn’t finished the message they’d planned to put there, or maybe they were taking the message down and left this one word. Whatever the reason, the one word on the sign was “Call.” That was it, “Call.” The rest of the way back to school, and for a long time after that, I wondered. Was “call” a noun – as in “a call”? Or a verb – as in (gesture) I’ll call you! Or, maybe even a plea – call me?

Today we hear a lot about call. There’s the overwhelming, almost super hero-like call of Isaiah in the year that King Uzziah died, complete with smoke and earthquakes and seraphs. In contrast, the exchange between Jesus and a group of frustrated fisherman seems relatively calm, and yet it is equally as transformative. These two scenes are separated by Paul’s very understated retelling of how Jesus called him on the road to Damascus.

So, let’s think about this thing called call. The Scriptures are full of people whom God calls for some special task or another… usually in a flashy, Cecil B. DeMille sort of way. Just think of the Burning Bush (that talked!) Many of the call stories in Scripture – Jeremiah, Isaiah, Paul (not to mention Sarah and Mary) are highly textured – they engage all of our senses with light, smoke, smells (incense & fish), and sometimes the odd angel. But what if these aren’t our stories? If we think the theatrics are necessary, we might miss the call made to us by God in Jesus.

Sisters and brothers, we are ALL called by God to help in bringing about God’s reign. We are all called to the work of pointing the world to God.

Everyone is called? How? I imagine that for some people, there really is a still small voice to which they respond without qualm or quibble. I think I may have met a couple of these people in my life. I know that I am envious of the ease with which they seem to negotiate their various vocations.

In my own life, the voice was neither still nor small, but more akin to a size-10 boot print on my hind parts. In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks to Simon Peter in ways that maybe more familiar and disconcerting, if not quite size-10-ish.

After taking over Peter’s boat (not even having asked permission to board), he turns to him with a strange idea. “Let’s go fishing out in the deep water. I’ve got a hunch there’s a catch out there.” Simon, the experienced fisherman, tried to be polite in his answer to this landlubber. “We’ve been out the whole night and caught nothing.” He must have been thinking, “And you’re the carpenter, right? The one who moonlights as a rabbi?”

Peter had failed to catch anything after a whole night, in spite of using the latest techniques in fishing, so what did he have to lose? Maybe he was completely shot. Maybe his response was the biblical equivalent of “WhatEver!” Maybe he said it with a sigh of resignation. But what he did say would change the course of his life. “If you say so...we’ll do it.”

So back out they go, into deep water, where no one who knows anything fishes in the middle of the day – the fish have gone down deep into the cool waters until nightfall. And they let the nets down with expectations of the same result as the night before – nothing. But this time, the nets are filled to the breaking point. There were too many fish for them to handle by themselves. And even when they signaled for their friends’ boat, there were so many fish that BOTH boats began to sink. Now, that’s a LOT of Mrs. Paul’s!

Where are we in this story? Where are you in this story? We are each called in ways that are unique to our situations and gifts, just like Simon Peter and the other fisherfolk. And, like Simon Peter, we often balk, especially about the “giving up everything” part. What, we ask, about the house, the family, the job, my obligations…the list is endless.

To be sure, sometimes God calls us into places that are quite distant from where we once stood. But what if – what if – God’s call to you is simply to be a more intentional, fuller, freer version of you, right where you are? You, the parent who makes your home the welcoming place for your children’s friends. You, the lover of books who wishes there were more time in the week to do recording for the blind and dyslexic. You get the idea, right?

Perhaps giving up all things and putting out into deep water is simply about learning to give up the fiction that we have complete control in our lives. Learning to be OK about venturing out in the deep – where we can’t really maneuver on our own power. So deep that we can barely touch the bottom with our tippy-toes, even if we’re really tall!

Jesus’ call to Simon Peter also comes at a point of failure and vulnerability: “all night long, and nothing.” Talk about not having any control. How often do you and I feel exactly this way about our lives? Striving, working, struggling, but with almost nothing, if anything, to show for our efforts. “All night long, and nothing.”

It all begins when Jesus comes to us in the middle of our actual lives, where we work, where we live, the seaside, the classroom, the hospital, the office, the kitchen, and asks us to trust him enough to do one strange little thing, like fishing in the deep water in broad daylight. It’s the kind of thing that’s a little weird, a bit outside your usual routine. It’s the sort of request that demands trust because you wouldn’t normally do it.

Then what? When you realize that you might be getting some sort of call from God – whether as an individual or as a parish, what are you supposed to do?

First of all, pay attention! There are many modes of God’s calling. In my experience with individuals and communities, three common themes arise:

The nagging notion – that phantom thought that just won’t disappear

Little hairs on the wrist

The instant shutdown – where the walls of fear go right up!

Second, after you’ve paid attention for a while, reflect on that experience with someone who loves you. When you realize that some sort of something is up – find someone to talk to. This is about discovery, not decisions.

Then, try it out. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, developed a method of action and reflection for trying out any new thing in life. You try something for a little while, then you reflect on it. Then, based on that reflection, you try it again, or differently, or something else. As Bishop Douglas reminds us, it’s ok to fail. Act, then reflect. If we spend all our time reflecting, we might never get around to acting at all.

Listen. Relate. Act. Reflect. (Repeat.)

The adventure that is God’s call to deeper waters is unique to each us. As we sang before the Gospel, “O Jesus, you have looked into my eyes; kindly smiling you’ve called out my name.” My prayer for each of you, and for this parish, is that your reaction will be, “if you say so, I will.” Amen.

 


190203

 
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Year C
3 February 2019
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

 

In the Name of God: Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Today’s Gospel finds us once more in a synagogue in Nazareth of a Saturday morning. Jesus has taken the scroll containing the book of Isaiah, reading that lovely part about the Jubilee Year, a year of the Lord’s favor. Good news for the poor, freedom for the prisoner, sight for the blind, and justice for the oppressed.

It’s all going so well. Every eye in the place is on him. They were all impressed by his gracious words. Wasn’t this Joseph’s boy? The carpenter’s kid with the iffy birth story? Who would have thought he’d grow up to become a healer! A preacher! A miracle worker! Their very own rising star! Now he’s home, and we can’t wait for him to get started here. For us.[1]

Then Jesus sits down and gives what has to be the world’s shortest sermon: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Nine words. Would that every sermon was that short!

And then things take a sharp turn. Perhaps reading the crowd’s expectations, he seems to give them what my grandmother called an old-fashioned “what for.” Allow me to paraphrase: “No doubt you’ll quote me the old proverb, “Physician, heal thyself.” And you’ll probably want me to repeat here in Nazareth what I’ve been doing in Capernaum, that land of so many Gentiles. Well, guess what? No prophet is accepted in his hometown. And when the prophets of old came to do miracles and wonders, it was usually among Israel’s enemies. I may have grown up here, but I don’t belong to you. I am not yours to claim or contain.”

Wait! Not ours? Seriously? Jesus reminds them of God’s long history of preference for the outsider, the foreigner, the stranger. Elijah, Jesus reminds them, wasn’t sent to care for the widows of Israel, but to the widow at Zarephath, in Lebanon. And Elisha was instructed to heal Naaman the Syrian, not any the numerous lepers in Israel.

In other words, Jesus reminds them, God has always been in the business of working on the margins. Of doing new and exciting things in remote and unlikely places. This is why Jesus has come. His entire ministry will be for the least of these, over and over again.

 

Moreover, Jesus is for everyone. Both Elijah and Elisha took God into places where God was not thought to be, and had no business being. In these words of inclusion, Jesus tells them that they are God’s, but God is not theirs. And awe turns to rage.

I invite you to sit with this thought for a moment. We are God’s; God is not ours. You are God’s; God is not yours.

Jesus calls us to look beyond, or beneath, the constructions of us and them. Yes, it is true that there are those in the world who would rob us, given the opportunity. This is a sad, but accurate, picture of our sinful world. But to surrender to a fear of THEM (whoever THEM may be) is crippling.

In reminding us that God works where God wants to work, Jesus is reminding us that all of us are “the broken.” It doesn’t take much imagination. All of us hurt. All of us have disappointments and regrets. All of us fail to live up to God’s dreams for us. Just beginning to imagine and acknowledge this deep affinity with the pain of every other human person might help us to, as Ronald Reagan once famously said, “tear down this wall.”

 

And it keeps going. We are, all of us called to be sent to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, favor for all the broken-hearted, us and them and everyone in between until there is no us-and-them divide but only we. We are, all of us, the beloved broken whom God calls to be beloved apostles. We are God’s and God is everybody’s.

What might this mean for us? My colleague Debie Thomas puts it this way. “Maybe it means that if the Jesus we worship never offends us, then it’s not really Jesus we worship. Yes, ouch. The Jesus Luke describes pushed so hard against his listeners’ cherished assumptions about faith, they nearly killed him. When was the last time Jesus made you that angry? When was the last time he touched whatever it is you call holy — your conservatism, your progressivism, your theology, your denomination, your Biblical literacy, your prayer life, your politics, your wokeness — and asked you to look beyond it to find him?”

The message about “all of us” made people in Jesus’ day really, really mad. And it will do the same today. Not because we’re awful people, but because we’re fearful people. And not just about us and them. I wonder if there’s even more to our disquiet. Maybe this story exposes our deep anxiety about hope itself. It’s hard, isn’t it, to give ourselves over to a whole new vision for our lives, to risk what we have for what might yet be?

 

How often do we bring our dashed hopes, our suspicions and fears, to the first cliff we can find, so that by pushing them off the edge, we might ensure our own sense of security, safety and salvation. And, there’s Jesus – pushing through the walls of our resistance, our facades of forbearance, and our determined denial. Jesus passes through all our objections, and then goes on his way, constantly calling us to that which will truly bring us peace, comfort and hope. This is not just Good News. This is the best news.

In his book, The Company of Strangers, the Quaker theologian Parker Palmer writes: “At the heart of any authentic religious experience, is recognition that God’s nature is too huge, God’s movement too deep, ever to be comprehended by a single conception or point of view…God’s truth is singular and eternal, but the forms in which we give it expression are as finite and fragile as clay pots, and we must always be ready to break them open on behalf of a larger vision of truth.”[2]

This larger vision is given beautiful words, and attributed to the Elizabethan sea captain and explorer, Sir Francis Drake (excerpted):


Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;

Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.

We ask You to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

 

What Jesus reminds us today is that God does not belong to us alone. God belongs to all the beloved broken whom He calls to be beloved apostles.

 

Let us pray. God of abundance, you continually call us to proclaim your grace and favor to the whole world; may these scriptures be fulfilled in our hearing this day, and the next, and the next. Amen.



[1] Debie Thomas, Leaving Home, posted on JourneywithJesus.net.

[2] Parker Palmer, The Company of Strangers.

 
 

 190127

 
27 January 2019
Third Sunday after the Epiphany: Year C
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson
 

This sermon was originally written for the previous Sunday (water into wine) but was not preached because of inclement weather. I decided to preach it this Sunday, because of its message of Grace.

 

In the Name of the God of Grace: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Back in June, when I first arrived here at Grace Church, one of the questions I asked myself was, “when do they celebrate their patronal feast? Or the founding of the parish?” Other parishes I have served have been named for saints who have feasts in the church’s calendar: Peter, Luke, Paul. But, to my knowledge, there is no St. Grace. Now, one could argue that every day could be a celebration of God’s grace. But, in last week’s lessons we hear (or read) an explicit example of God’s grace, an overflowing of joy and blessing from God. And it takes place at a party…a wedding, a celebration of an entire community.

That being said, let’s push the pause button on the party part for a moment, and look at the context. Let’s think for a moment about signs and miracles. The story at Cana is the opening of what scholars call The Book of Signs. Throughout his Gospel, John presents seven scenes in which Jesus performs a sign:

Book of Signs

Water to wine (2:1-12)

Healing of the official’s son (4:43-54)

Healing a paralyzed man (5:1-15)

Feeding of the 5000 (6:1-15)

Walking on water (6:16-24)

Healing a man born blind (9:1-12)

Raising Lazarus from the dead (11:1-44)

 

Now, even though scholars may call these events “signs,” I suspect we tend to think of them as “miracles,” yes? In the Marriage Service, the Prayer Book speaks of Jesus’ “first miracle at a wedding at Cana in Galilee.”

For a moment, just imagine being in the crowd that saw Jesus healing someone who had been blind from birth. Or feeding thousands from scraps – or raising someone from the dead. I think we would call them miracles, indeed. And what do we, as modern, “enlightened” Christians, understand these stories? Thomas Jefferson, true to his time, made a “rational edition” of the Bible by cutting out (literally) all such passages!

How, then, do we understand the “Miracle” at Cana? Through the course of my life, I’ve heard all sorts of explanations.

            The “they were mistaken” or “there’s always somebody who fibs in these stories” explanation: Maybe they weren’t really out of wine. Someone was misleading us…

            The “smoke and mirrors” explanation: Maybe Jesus (or someone he designated) switched the jars of water, replacing them with jars of wine. (That’s six stone jars, weighing roughly 200 pounds each….)

            And my favorite is always the “those poor Bible people, they didn’t understand science and were SO gullible” explanation: Tannins had soaked into the walls of the jars –adding water drew them out. It was a biblical version of insta-wine – just add water and stir.


The problem with these explanations is that they get caught up in the details, right? The size of the jars, the number of days the party has been going, the kinds of things that “prove” or “disprove” miracles. But this is called The Book of Signs, not The Book of Miracles. In other words, the miracle itself is not really what we are supposed to see, miraculous though it might be. Signs point beyond themselves. I’m picturing the Scarecrow in the Land of Oz (do visual).

The healings, the feedings, the transformation of water into wine – all point to who Jesus is. Who God is. After all, miracles for miracles’ sake are simply magic. These events reveal who the Word-Made-Flesh is – and what God intends for us, what he has intended for us since the beginning of time.

In fact, we could see all of John’s Gospel as a Book of Signs…beginning with the Prologue. In the beginning was the Word…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:1). John is telling us that the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, was the most important sign of who God is and the extent of God’s love for us – by becoming one of us. And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace (Jn 1:16).

So, instead of looking at Jesus as a miracle worker, what if, once the Word becomes flesh, the rest of the Gospel is about showing us what that “grace upon grace” tastes like, looks like, smells like, sounds like, feels like?


In other words, Jesus’ signs don’t just tell us what abundant grace upon grace is, they show us. And what does that grace taste like? It tastes like the best, whether it’s wine or juice. And the best tastes even better when you are expecting the cheap stuff. Because it’s not about the alcohol, it’s about the sweetness of grace.

And, while the details of the how in this story are not the point, the details of abundance are. Just imagine SIX jars of about 25 gallons, each filled to the brim. That’s 150 gallons of great stuff, of the best stuff. Whether it’s vintage wine or top-shelf gourmet grape juice. That’s abundance. That’s grace upon grace. That’s what God has always intended for his beloved creation.

Only in John’s Gospel do we hear Jesus saying, I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly (Jn 10:10). I think this what the sign at Cana is all about. Water, the basic necessity of life, is changed into wine—a symbol not only of life, but also of abundant, joyous, and celebrative life. In changing the water into wine, in allowing the celebration to go on, Jesus is clueing in people – clueing in us – to his mission. Jesus has come to transform the world…by transforming us. Letting us see, taste, and – if we’re attentive – believe in the abundance God wills for us.

And that’s not so easy for many of us. My colleague David Lose notes that: “we’re disposed by evolution to pay attention to scarcity and fear. Think about it: if you miss opportunity, it might be a bummer, but if you miss acknowledging a real threat – including running out of something essential – well, that might be deadly. (W)e’re hard-wired to pay attention to scarcity and lack and fear.”[1]

I come from a long line of people who paid a lot of attention to scarcity, probably for very good reasons. We were taught that our celestial bank accounts held a finite amount of good. And we were to be careful about spending through those good things, because when they were gone…what are you going to do?

My father’s mother was a particularly prudent practitioner of this philosophy. Her parents were Danish farmers, who fled the famines of the 1870s to relocate in southern Wisconsin. She and my grandfather, another child of Danish immigrants, were mostly farm folk. They lived through WWI and raised three sons through the Great Depression. They used and re-used and re-used things until they fell apart.

When my grandmother died in 1983, we discovered in her cedar chest three brand-new pair of silk stockings. They were wrapped in cellophane, which gives you some idea of how long they’d been there. Three brand-new pair – surrounded by a good half-dozen that had been darned so often that there was more darn than stocking.

You see, my grandmother was saving the new stockings “for good.” But good never came. For decades, she denied herself the simple pleasure of pulling new silk over her tired toes because she didn’t want to run out of good. And it broke my heart.

My sisters and brothers, there is grace in the Gospel that is about divine extravagance – even here in New England! Not in terms of material possessions or getting our way all the time. And, that graceful abundance is more about what WE need as a community of faith. Hear again what Paul says about the Gifts of the Spirit To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (1 Cor 12:7).

What do people see when they look at your life? Both your life and the life of this place called Grace. Are you a sign to the world, or your town, or even your family of what God desires for you? Are you able to let God turn water into wine in your life? Or do people see your faith as a sign of God turning water into vinegar? Are you miserly or spendthrift? Do you clench or do you release? Do you sip, or do you drink deeply, with faith that the cup is never empty?

We serve a God whose name is not Duty but Love. God desires for us not just life but abundant life. John reminds us today that grace isn’t only about making up for something we lack, but also providing more than we’d ever imagined or deserve. This is Grace; Grace is this place; Grace is your name.

Like Jesus, or even like my grandmother, when will your hour come? When is the occasion that will be, really and truly, “for good?” I pray that each and every day, you may be able to rise and with profound gratitude sing to God with the Psalmist:

We feast upon the abundance of your house;

You give us to drink from the river of your delights.

Continue your loving-kindness to those who know you,

and your favor to those who are true of heart.

Amen!



[1] David Lose, In the Meantime, 19 January 2019.

 

190120

 
20 January 2019
Second Sunday after the Epiphany: Year C
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

 

In the Name of the God of Grace: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Back in June, when I first arrived here at Grace Church, one of the questions I asked myself was, “when do they celebrate their patronal feast? Or the founding of the parish?” Other parishes I have served have been named for saints who have feasts in the church’s calendar: Peter, Luke, Paul. But, to my knowledge, there is no St. Grace. Now, one could argue that every day could be a celebration of God’s grace. But today we have an explicit example of God’s grace, an overflowing of joy and blessing from God. And it takes place at a party…a wedding, a celebration of an entire community.

That being said, let’s push the pause button on the party part for a moment, and look at the context. Let’s think for a moment about signs and miracles. Today’s Gospel is the opening of what scholars call The Book of Signs. Throughout his Gospel, John presents seven scenes in which Jesus performs a sign:

Book of Signs

Water to wine (2:1-12)

Healing of the official’s son (4:43-54)

Healing a paralyzed man (5:1-15)

Feeding of the 5000 (6:1-15)

Walking on water (6:16-24)

Healing a man born blind (9:1-12)

Raising Lazarus from the dead (11:1-44)

 

Now, even though scholars may call these events “signs,” I suspect we tend to think of them as “miracles,” yes? For example, in the Marriage Service, the Prayer Book speaks of Jesus’ “first miracle at a wedding at Cana in Galilee.” At the Offertory today, we will again sing, “manifest in power divine, changing water into wine.”

For a moment, just imagine being in the crowd that saw Jesus healing someone who had been blind from birth. Or feeding thousands from scraps – or raising someone from the dead. I think we would call them miracles, indeed. And what do we, as modern, “enlightened” Christians, understand these stories? Thomas Jefferson, true to his time, made a “rational edition” of the Bible by cutting out (literally) all such passages!

How, then, do we understand the “Miracle” at Cana? Through the course of my life, I’ve heard all sorts of explanations.

            The “they were mistaken” or “there’s always somebody who fibs in these stories” explanation: Maybe they weren’t really out of wine. Someone was misleading us…

            The “smoke and mirrors” explanation: Maybe Jesus (or someone he designated) switched the jars of water, replacing them with jars of wine. (That’s six stone jars, weighing roughly 200 pounds each….)

            And my favorite is always the “those poor Bible people, they didn’t understand science and were SO gullible” explanation: Tannins had soaked into the walls of the jars –adding water drew them out. It was a biblical version of insta-wine – just add water and stir.

The problem with these explanations is that they get caught up in the details, right? The size of the jars, the number of days the party has been going, the kinds of things that “prove” or “disprove” miracles. But this is called The Book of Signs, not The Book of Miracles. In other words, the miracle itself is not really what we are supposed to see, miraculous though it might be. Signs point beyond themselves. I’m picturing the Scarecrow in the Land of Oz (do visual).

The healings, the feedings, the transformation of water into wine – all point to who Jesus is. Who God is. After all, miracles for miracles’ sake are simply magic. These events reveal who the Word-Made-Flesh is – and what God intends for us, what he has intended for us since the beginning of time.

In fact, we could see all of John’s Gospel as a Book of Signs – beginning with the Prologue. In the beginning was the Word…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:1). John is telling us that the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, was the most important sign of who God is and the extent of God’s love for us – by becoming one of us. And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace (Jn 1:16).

So, instead of looking at Jesus as a miracle worker, what if, once the Word becomes flesh, the rest of the Gospel is about showing us what that “grace upon grace” tastes like, looks like, smells like, sounds like, feels like?

In other words, Jesus’ signs don’t just tell us what abundant grace upon grace is, they show us. And what does that grace taste like? It tastes like the best, whether it’s wine or juice. And the best tastes even better when you are expecting the cheap stuff. Because it’s not about the alcohol, it’s about the sweetness of grace.

And, while the details of the how in this story are not the point, the details of abundance are. Just imagine SIX jars of about 25 gallons, each filled to the brim. That’s 150 gallons of great stuff, of the best stuff. That’s abundance. That’s grace upon grace. That’s what God has always intended for his beloved creation.

Only in John’s Gospel do we hear Jesus saying, I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly (Jn 10:10). I think this what the sign at Cana is all about. Water, the basic necessity of life, is changed into wine—a symbol not only of life, but also of abundant, joyous, and celebrative life. In changing the water into wine, in allowing the celebration to go on, Jesus is clueing in people – clueing in us – to his mission. Jesus has come to transform the world…by transforming us. Letting us see, taste, and – if we’re attentive – believe in the abundance God wills for us.

And that’s not so easy for many of us. My colleague David Lose notes that: “we’re disposed by evolution to pay attention to scarcity and fear. Think about it: if you miss opportunity, it might be a bummer, but if you miss acknowledging a real threat – including running out of something essential – well, that might be deadly. (W)e’re hard-wired to pay attention to scarcity and lack and fear.”[1]

I come from a long line of people who paid a lot of attention to scarcity, probably for very good reasons. We were taught that our celestial bank accounts held a finite amount of good. And we were to be careful about spending through those good things, because when they were gone…what are you going to do?

My father’s mother was a particularly prudent practitioner of this philosophy. Her parents were Danish farmers, who fled the famines of the 1870s to relocate in southern Wisconsin. She and my grandfather, another child of Danish immigrants, were mostly farm folk. They lived through WWI and raised three sons through the Great Depression. They used and re-used and re-used things until they fell apart.

When my grandmother died in 1983, we discovered in her cedar chest three brand-new pair of silk stockings. They were wrapped in cellophane, which gives you some idea of how long they’d been there. Three brand-new pair – surrounded by a good half-dozen that had been darned so often that there was more darn than stocking.

You see, my grandmother was saving the new stockings “for good.” But good never came. For decades, she denied herself the simple pleasure of pulling new silk over her tired toes because she didn’t want to run out of good. And it broke my heart.

My sisters and brothers, there is grace in the Gospel that is about divine extravagance – even here in New England! Not in terms of material possessions or getting our way all the time. And, that graceful abundance is more about what WE need as a community of faith. Hear again what Paul says about the Gifts of the Spirit To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (1 Cor 12:7).

What do people see when they look at your life? Are you a sign to the world, or your town, or even your family of what God desires for you? Are you able to let God turn water into wine in your life? Or do people see your faith as a sign of God turning water into vinegar? Are you miserly or spendthrift? Do you clench or do you release? Do you sip, or do you drink deeply, with faith that the cup is never empty?

We serve a God whose name is not Duty but Love. God desires for us not just life but abundant life. John reminds us today that grace isn’t only about making up for something we lack, but also providing more than we’d ever imagined or deserve. This is Grace; Grace is this place; Grace is your name.

Like Jesus, or even like my grandmother, when will your hour come? When is the occasion that will be, really and truly, “for good?” I pray that each and every day, you may be able to rise and with profound gratitude sing to God with the Psalmist:

We feast upon the abundance of your house;

You give us to drink from the river of your delights.

Continue your loving-kindness to those who know you,

and your favor to those who are true of heart.

Amen!



[1] David Lose, In the Meantime, 19 January 2019.

 

 


190113

January 13, 2019

First Sunday after the Epiphany:
The Baptism of our Lord
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
In the Name of God, into whose life we are baptized:
Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.
 

Sometime in the latter half of the 4th century, Gregory Nazianzus, the Archbishop of Constantinople wrote. Christ is bathed in light; let us also be bathed in light.[1] These beautiful words are particualry apt, because today you and I stand on the banks of the River Jordan with the whole Church – with all who have been baptized into Jesus’ Name – recalling his baptism by John. (point) Just like in that window. Just a little bit ago we sang:

On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry / announces that the Lord is nigh;

Awake and hearken, for he brings / glad tidings of the King of Kings.[2]

But, wait. Didn’t we start Advent with those very words? Why are they here again? For the past six weeks, we have been seriously involved with prophecies of the Messiah, the commemoration of Jesus’ human birth, and finally, today, Jesus’ entrance into public ministry. And, yet, we’re back where we began. Sort of.

We generally prefer stories that go in one direction; stories that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But we rarely get that kind of storytelling here in church. Instead, we usually get stories that fold back and forth, then overlap in sometimes unexpected ways. Just think about how the threads of John the Baptist and his mother, Elizabeth, appear in the weaving of our story since December began.

This overlap occurs not only in the stories themselves, but also in the language of symbols. Today is such a day. The baptismal font, the source of our new life in Christ, is filled with the same water that has marked the whole history of God’s relationship with humanity. Because this is so, the waters of the font are not just the River Jordan, but also the waters of life at Creation, and the waters of death and new life at the Flood. The font is the Red Sea bringing both liberation and death, then new life from the rock at Massa in the desert. The font is the dew from heaven which is both manna in the desert and the Just One of Israel.

True, water can sometimes seem to offer only destruction: Katrina, Harvey, Maria, Sandy. Yet, at the end of the day, the font contains the living water that Jesus promised the Samaritan woman — water and blood flowing from the side of Life itself, freely given.

Well, if that’s all about water, what do we think about baptism? I suspect that most of us (at least on occasion) think about baptism simply as a cleasing bath that washes away our sins. This is baptism as a problem solver, as fire insurance. All joking aside, to think of baptism only as a get-out-of jail-free card is to see baptism as an end-point, a one-and-done event.

But wait, there’s more! In baptism, God offers us a share in Christ’s death and resurrection. In Romans (6:8) Paul writes, if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. This is not about baptism as freedom from something, but freedom for something. This is baptism as a beginning of a new life, not simply the ending of an old life. This is baptism into something, a rising into a new life in Christ, as members of Christ’s body.

If our baptism is a beginning, where do we go from here? How do we live a baptismal life, raised with Christ in the Spirit? How do we avoid the plight of Narcissus, so that when we peer into the waters of the font, we don’t see just our own reflection, but we can begin to glimpse that which is of God? To put it antother way, what does it mean to live a baptismal spirituality? I propose three simple words — Get Over Yourself.

We are surrounded every day, and in every way with what I sometimes call “galloping Pelagianism.” Pelagius was a British theologian who lived in Rome in the late 4.c., and taught that we make our own salvation. Now, this may seem remote to our own experience, but look around you.

If you buy this sports utility vehicle, go to this gym or club, shop out of this catalogue, buy these self-help tapes, books, and seminars … you will have it all - the American Dream. I don’t know about you, but this sounds a lot like making our own salvation to me. But the American Dream is not the dream of Jesus Christ, because in the dream of Jesus Christ — being born in water and the Spirit— it is always God who makes the first move. Living a baptismal spirituality requires a close look at how we respond to God’s initiatives in our lives.

Daniel Erlander [writing within the Lutheran tradition], says “Never does our status before God depend on … how we feel, having the right experience, being free of doubts, what we accomplish, our success, or our position. We are Christians because God surprised us. Coming in water, God washed us and grafted us into Christ. Our identity for all the days of our life is set!” We are now the bringers forth of justice; we are now the “proclaimers of the wonderful deeds of God in Christ in [and for] the world today.”[3]

This is the reality of God always taking the initiative, and the story of God’s interaction with humanity is filled with examples of God insisting that we get over ourselves — to be vulnerable and open to God, to others, and, what is often the most difficult, to ourselves. This is the lesson we hear repeated in the stories of Abraham & Sarah, of Elizabeth & Zechariah, of Mary & Joseph.

This is also the lesson that I saw played out in a swimming pool, one hot July day in the mid 1970s. During my many summers of working at a Boy Scout camp outside of St. Louis, I often had the occasion to work with groups of developmentally disabled guys – both young and old. One particular incident is as clear in my mind this morning as it was that day, now some forty years ago. I was working with a group of “Boy” Scouts in their late 40s, most of whom were terrified to be in the water, even just up to their knees. The goal of the week was to get them comfortable enough to put their heads under the water, no simple task for the terrified. We played every game imaginable to increase their comfort level, apparently with no success.

On Friday, the last day of camp, one of my would-be swimmers, John, came up to me in the shallow end of the pool and said, “I really want to put my face in, but I’m scared. Will you go under the water with me?” I said, “Of course.” “Will you hold my hand.” “Sure.” “And don’t let go!” “Of course not.”

Then followed several attempts, resulting in just me underwater. Eventually, with one hand grabbing mine, and the other pinching his nose, John let go of his fear for long enough to thrust his face beneath the surface of the water. When we emerged only seconds later, I saw a look on his face that said volumes more than the “Thank you” that came from his lips.

What I saw written there in big letters and enormously bright lights was, “I Did It!” I forgot myself, took the plunge, and I’m not only OK, I’m changed.

In fact, John spent as much of that last day as possible with his face in the water, still holding his nose but no longer my hand, exploring this new part of his life, born of water. From that day to this, John’s experience in the swimming pool of Camp May has been a powerful icon to me of the baptismal life.

After taking the initial plunge, living into a baptismal spirituality also means being open and vulnerable enough to recognize our need to be fed — fed at the table of human love and friendship; and even moreso at this table of God. If we can get over ourselves, even for just a little while, we may be able to see God in the faces and touch of our friends and those around us. And, stepping outside of ourselves, we find God in a simple meal of bread and wine that is prepared daily in the heart of God with such extravagant lavishness.

In a few moments we will renew our baptismal vows, reminding us of our own re-birth in water and the Spirit. If you are wondering where you can fix your heart so that you can find your true self, look no further than the commitments which we pledge to fulfill in word and carry out in action – with God’s help. Listen to the verbs, the “how” of your response to God’s call in your life: continue, persevere, proclaim, seek & serve, and strive.

Through the renewal of our baptismal vows, and continual dining at the table of the Lord, we are called, like Mary & Joseph, to return to our own country — whose landmarks are this font and this table — so that we might discover, again and again, “a welcome place in our dis-placed lives.”[4] 

Finally, then, we return to Gregory’s call to each one of us—Christ is bathed in light; let us also be bathed in light. Come on in—the water’s fine. Amen.


[1] Gregory Nazianzus, Oratio 39 in Sancta Lumina, 14.

[2] Charles Coffin, Jordanis oras praevia. Translated John Chandler.

[3] Daniel Erlander, Baptized, We Live: Lutheranism as a Way of Life (Chelan, WA: Holden Village, 1981) 4.

[4] Maxwell E. Johnson, “Back Home to the Font: Eight Implications of a baptismal Spirituality” Worship 71: 482.First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord Grace Church, Trumbull The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson

 

 

 

 


190106

January 6, 2019
Epiphany Lessons & Carols
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson
 

Meditation

“A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, the very dead of winter.”[1]

On Christmas Day in 1622, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes preached on the visit of the Wise Men to the Christmas Court of King James I. He was imagining what it might have been like to be one of those travelers, following a star through rough & dangerous terrain, to who knows where.

As we gather today to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, we might ask, who are these Wise Ones? And why do they so capture our imagination?

The writer of Matthew’s gospel is the only one to mention the Wise Men, or the Magi. Matthew tells us that they came “from the east” (“from the rising of the sun”) to worship the “king of the Jews”. The gospel never mentions the number of Magi, but most Christians have traditionally assumed them to have been three in number, based on the number of gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. In some Eastern Churches, there are as many as twelve.

Although the Wise Men, or Magi, are commonly referred to as “kings,” there is nothing in Matthew’s account that implies that they were rulers of any kind. The identification of the Magi as kings is linked to Old Testament prophecies that describe the Messiah being worshipped by kings especially Psalm 72:10, which reads, “Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations serve him.

In cases like today, when we have few details, we often elaborate. For example, various traditions have given these important visitors a wide range of names. We know them as Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar. Then, there’s the question of where they came from. The same country? Different places? Foreign, certainly. Perhaps even exotic. What seems most important to Matthew is that God was revealing the birth of Jesus to the wider world, to the lands beyond the people of Israel.

This Feast of Epiphany brings to a close the Christmas celebration, our waiting for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. At the same time, along with Simeon and Anna in the Temple, we now shift our focus to the work of God in Jesus in the world. In the coming weeks, we will hear Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan, the call of the Disciples, and his ministry of teaching.

But, before that, let’s have one more bit of Christmas fun, shall we?


[1] Lancelot Andrewes’ Sermon on Mt. 2:1-2, preached in the presence of James I on Christmas 1622. The opening five lines of T.S Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi (1927) are borrowed directly from Andrewes.

 


181230

The First Sunday after Christmas
December 30, 2018
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 147
Galatians 3:23-25;4:4-7
John 1:1-18

 

In the name of the Incarnate God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Some years ago, on a misty Christmas morning, I made my way through the streets of San Francisco to the inner-city parish of St. John the Evangelist, where I was serving as Director of Music and Liturgy, for the Christmas Day service. After the usual late evening before with all the excitement of Christmas Eve, children, food and drink, and the elaborate midnight service, I found that although I was tired to my bones, I looked forward to the smaller, simpler morning service.

As usual, the streets that Christmas morning were nearly deserted. Most families were at home, still asleep or sitting around in their pajamas, opening presents. My normal drive to the church took me beneath a freeway overpass. As I approached the freeway, an odd sight caught my attention; and it made me look again.

It was a pink aluminum Christmas tree, about three feet high, set up on a small triangular littered patch of grass between the bridge and the onramp to the freeway.

There, amid the wind-blown trash and grimy rubbish of an inner-city overpass was this strange, glittering piece of pink brightness. It made me smile, and it filled my heart.

As is too typical in urban areas, there, under the bridge where the steel girders and the slope of the concrete meet, a number of people had made their home. From a variety of backgrounds and for a variety reasons, these folks had found themselves homeless, living on the streets. The overpass provided shelter from the wind and rain.

I imagined that the pink aluminum Christmas tree I saw might have been repurposed from the side of the road somewhere by the residents of this place, and put it there as their own, perhaps their only, celebration of Christmas joy.

A garish pink metallic sermon, shouting out for all the world to hear: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Today is the first Sunday after Christmas Day. It’s also the Fifth Day of Christmas. You know, the day of Five Golden Rings? On Christmas Eve, I heard a television anchor begin by saying: “Now that the Christmas Season is coming to a close....” And I thought, well … actually, we’ve only just begun.

Even though the Wise Men are getting closer, today we don’t hear any “real” Christmas stories. No Mary or Joseph, no angels, or shepherds or Magi.

Where, in fact, is that sweet little baby? Today, we just have In the beginning…Ho, ho, ho-hum. It’s sort of an anti-climax, isn’t it?

But, what if? What if we could hear John’s prologue not as something egg-headed and airy-fairy? What if we heard it as something, well, unexpected? Like a pink aluminum Christmas tree? Unexpected, maybe even a little atilt, but insistently shining in the darkness. What if?

So, let’s go back to the beginning. In the Beginning, John says. The Word of God who was present when everything was created. (Pencil demo – God creates a pencil simply by saying “pencil,” not an ideation, but an utterance).

Genesis tells us that God said, “Let there be …” and there was. God spoke day and night, heaven and earth, land and sea, plants and animals, and humanity into being. Jesus is that utterance. Jesus is God’s eternal speech, which existed before anything else and called everything into being.

One of the stanzas of “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” that was omitted from the Hymnal 1982 reads:

At his word the words were framèd;
he commanded; it was done:
heaven and earth and depths of ocean
in their threefold order one;
all that grows beneath the shining
of the moon and burning sun,
evermore and evermore!
 

Already in the late 4th century, a poet named Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348-413), was making a singable version of John’s Prologue.

So, here we have John waxing rhapsodic about the Eternal Word, and then comes: There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. Almost certainly a nod to the followers of John the Baptist, who were almost as numerous as followers of Jesus in those early years. I suspect that John the Evangelist needed to acknowledge the importance of this large sect, while holding firm to his claim that the Baptist was the forerunner, not the Light.

And the Light had been prophesied and sung about since the beginning of time. Again, Prudentius:

This is he whom seers in old time
chanted of with one accord;
whom the voices of the prophets
promised in their faithful word;
now he shines, the long expected,
let creation praise its Lord,
evermore and evermore!
 

In the Incarnation, God’s eternal Word was articulated within our world and within human history in a particular person. Jesus, then, is God’s sermon preached to us in the living out of a human life. Jesus became the enfleshment of what God has been trying to get us to hear since the beginning of time.

And just what is it that God is saying to us? First off, God says, “This is who I am!” In Jesus, God speaks to us as in no other way; not as in the Bible, not as in nature, not as by human reason or accomplishment, not as by listening to inner voices. Jesus tells us who God is. Jesus also tells us who we are; who we were created to be.

In Jesus, we hear that God heals, forgives, embraces outcasts, and prays for those who hurt him. In Jesus, we hear that God understands betrayal and denial, suffering and pain, humiliation and death. In Jesus, we hear that God brings victory over despair, defeat, destruction, and death. In Jesus, we hear that God wills and shares that victory with us, with humanity and with creation.

God the Creator takes on flesh, our flesh, and becomes one of us, lives among us. In the midst of our darkness, in the midst of the chaos of our lives, Jesus comes, like a pink aluminum Christmas tree, proclaiming life and not death. Later in John’s gospel, we will hear Jesus say, “I come that you may have life and have it abundantly.” In and through Jesus, we are shown how we are meant to be, full of life, full of hope, full of joy. God has poured upon us the new light of God’s incarnate Word. Our task is to figure out how to allow this light to shine forth in our lives.

The God who takes on our flesh does not ignore the darkness but shines in the very midst of it. And sometimes that shining light looks a great deal like a pink aluminum Christmas tree!

Inevitably, the Christmas spirit will wane. What then? Do we have to wait until the 2019 Shopping Season cranks up to remember the stories, the spirit of Christmas? We don’t want to have Febulights, do we? But how, then, do we remember that we are beloved Children of God? And that Jesus is the mirror of the best that God has made us for, and desires for us?

Let me suggest the wisdom of Howard Thurman. Thurman was perhaps the leading African-American theologian of the 20th century. His poem, The Work of Christmas, was published after his death, and reminds us how to see pink aluminum trees around us all year.

The Work of Christmas

(1985, posthumous)

When the star in the sky is gone,
When the Kings and Princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner
To teach the nations
To bring Christ to all
To make music in the heart.
~ Howard Thurman (1899-1981)
 

In becoming flesh, God dignifies us – our flesh, our frail flesh – calling us to new life…the life God always intended us to have…from the beginning.

And the Word became Flesh
and dwelt among us,
full of grace and truth. Amen. 
 
 

181223

23 December 2018
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C
Grace Episcopal Church, Trumbull
The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
Micah 5:2-5a
Canticle 15 + Magnificat
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45
 

In the Name of God, whose coming we await. Amen.

Please be seated

In today’s Gospel, we hear the story of the Visitation, when Mary set out and went with haste from her home in Nazareth to meet her cousin Elizabeth in a Judean town in the hill country. Tradition tells us that this town is called Ein Karem, now a suburb on the southwest side of Jerusalem. The distance from Nazareth to Ein Karem is about 90 miles.  

I like to think about this story as “the meeting of the mothers.” It is remarkable enough that two women take center stage in a biblical story. We might think of Martha & Mary or Ruth & Naomi, but such instances are rare. And it is more remarkable still that these are two mothers.

And these two mothers, Mary and Elizabeth, are quite a pair, aren’t they? Neither is exactly what we would call conventional. Not quite our view of “acceptable,” right? One was a little too old. The other was a little too unmarried.

Just imagine the tabloid headlines - “Elderly Matron Pregnant! Aliens suspected!” or “Village Girl in Trouble. Local boy under investigation!”

Lest you think that I am equating the Bible with the National Enquirer, let me put your minds at rest. I am not. But biblical stories – especially the stories that surround Christmas – too often become normalized, housebroken, harmless… And the story of these two mothers is anything but harmless!

For Elizabeth and Mary are biblical revolutionaries. Biblical revolutionaries? There’s a term that might stop you in your tracks. What do we think of when we say revolutionary? In this neck of the woods, the first person that comes to mind is Nathan Hale. A short list might include Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, maybe Che Guevara, all associated with armed conflict or violent resistance.

Today, I want to suggest that there’s a less violent, but no less radical, way to think of a revolutionary. Remember Ghandi, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Oh, and let’s not forget Jesus.

A revolutionary, after, is only someone who advocates a profound social or political change. But a revolution can also, simply, be a turning. The earth revolves around the sun every 365 ¼ days (rounding it off!).

I call Mary and Elizabeth revolutionaries because they turn. They turn to God. Sure, there are angelic messengers involved in their stories, but the point is that they each respond to the particular call that God gives them.

If your Sunday School experience was like mine, you learned that Mary “meekly” did what God asked. As if saying yes to God involved no actual thinking at all. Surely, somewhere along the road to Elizabeth’s house, or Bethlehem, or hiding from Herod’s soldiers in Egypt, or throughout Galilee, or at the foot of the Cross, Mary must have uttered something like “I really didn’t know what to expect…this wasn’t it.”

And we can hardly expect less of the calls that God makes to each and every one of us. The Magnificat, the canticle we said between the first two readings, reminds us that God’s world is a world of reversals, of things being upside down, not at all what we had expected. God’s world is a world where the oppressed get good news, the brokenhearted are comforted and those who had wept now laugh. This is the world where the God and Creator of us all is born in a stable, in Bethlehem, the least of the cities of Judah!

In the Magnificat we recall that God is constantly making new life where there was none before. And that new life is not limited to children. Think of Peter at the lakeside, or Moses and the burning bush. These are but two other stories of God’s calling to us – of God constantly revealing himself in newness…in often uncomfortable unexpectedness.

I’m not ordinarily a betting man, but I’m willing to wager that each and every person in this church today has had some experience of God calling us into some kind of new life or other.

“Call” isn’t restricted to those of us who end up wearing clerical collars. God calls all of us, constantly, into deeper relationship with him and the world. Maybe God calls you to tutor a woman at Mercy Learning Center. Maybe God calls you to start a Bible study, or to attend one Maybe God calls you to make sick calls. Or maybe God is calling you to find a way to live without drugs or alcohol.

How does this happen? Most of us don’t see angels in our living rooms. Sometimes a call might come in a cumulative fashion – a persistent, long-term voice that you realize only late in the day that you’ve been hearing all along. Or maybe it’s in a quiet conversation over lunch; a casual comment by a relative stranger at a party; or the simple touch of a friend’s hand. We may even hear its echoes upon waking from a dream.

God’s calling to us is what the whole fuss at Christmas is really about, isn’t it? In the coming of Jesus into a particular time and place, God was trying to make a point to a world that had forgotten that to be a human being is a good thing. God is calling us to be human – to be ourselves.

We don’t ever seem to be happy with what we ARE – we’re always trying to be something different (better) – richer, thinner, smarter, less bald – something! We spend huge amounts of our time trying to conform to some, or someone else’s, notion of someone/something that we’re supposed to be. Those of us with in-laws feel this particularly keenly as holiday dinners approach.

Do we ever really listen to what it is that we tell our kids when they complain about, say, not being popular? We say something like, “don’t worry – there are people out there who value you for your unique and wonderful qualities.” Our parents told us that, and it would be GREAT if our children could believe it, too, but they often see us model something else entirely.

In the birth of Jesus, God gives us a different model. The birth of Jesus (the Incarnation) is God’s own revolutionary restoration of normalcy. In Jesus, God is saying, “See? It’s really not so bad to be an ordinary human being! Remember, back there on the 6th day when I created you, and called you good? OK, so things got a little messed up. But you’ve completely forgotten the point that you’re created in my image. Instead, you spend all your time trying to be me. So, look, now! Pay attention! I’m becoming one of you myself, just to make the point so clear that you can’t miss it!”

In the second century, a bishop by the name of Irenaeus summed up the Incarnation. Irenaeus wrote, “The glory of God is humanity fully alive.”

God’s call to us throughout this Advent season has been to become more fully human. That means to become more fully who God created us to be. More loving, more present, more compassionate, in ever deeper relationship with God and with each other.

And, maybe most importantly for us, it means learning to be OK with being just us – prone to messing up, beset with all manner of insecurities – at least for now. It’s OK to be ordinary, to be mundane, even to be ungifted (at least in the world’s eyes). Like being the least of the cities of Judah, it may not be at all what you expect…but that’s OK.

In the “meeting of the mothers,” Mary and Elizabeth witness to each other the extraordinary call of God in their ordinary lives and, as good biblical revolutionaries, they turn toward God, responding with joy. I want to leave you with a poem by W. H. Auden, about the power of Jesus coming into our actual, ordinary, lives.

Blessed Woman,
Excellent Man,
Redeem for the dull the
Average Way,
That common ungifted
Natures may
Believe that their normal
Vision can
Walk to perfection.

And, so, as we stand on tiptoe at the threshold of Christmas, we pray…

O Come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive…us. Amen.

 


 

[1] Blessed Woman: from W. H. Auden: Collected Poems, Edward Mendelson, ed. Copyright 1944; renewed 1972, W. H. Auden. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.

 


181216

15 December 2018
Advent III - C
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9 – Ecce Deus
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

 

In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

On this third Sunday of Advent, you may notice a few things that are different. At the start of the service, we lighted two purple candles, and a rose-colored candle. The vestments I wear today are less purple than those I wore over the past two weeks.

Since ancient times, in the Western Church, this Sunday has been known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is a Latin word meaning rejoice. It’s in the imperative, so it’s a command, not a suggestion. And, it’s taken from Paul’s exhortation to the church at Philippi: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

The Church offers us a little bit of a breather in our getting ready to celebrate the birth of Christ. There’s a shift from alert, watchful preparation to an encouragement to rejoice. Rejoice always.

The readings are full of joy! The prophet Zephaniah tells the people of Israel: Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.

Isaiah strikes a similar chord: Therefore, you shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation. Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.

And, again, from Paul, writing from prison: Rejoice. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything.

So far so good, on this Sunday we call Rejoice! And then, we find ourselves back in the wilderness with John the Baptist shouting, you brood of vipers. Vipers? So much for rejoicing, right? Well, maybe.

Last week, we discovered John the Baptist crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. Today, we hear this rough-voiced, old school prophet, warning us of the end times and telling us how to prepare.

He shouts at us to bear fruits worthy of repentance. Repentance. Sometimes words are used like hammers so often that we turn off the ears of our hearts. In his translation The Message, Eugene Peterson offered this reading: “It’s your life that must change, not your skin…What counts is your life.”

So, the people ask – we ask, if we are to change our lives, what then should we do?

Plain-speaking John tells them that they ought to be honest, kind, and hardworking.

Honest (“Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you”). Kind (“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise”). Diligent (“Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”).

What then must we do? Honesty. Kindness. Diligence. Three simple, basic things. But, as that eminent theologian Peggy Lee might have said, “Is that all there is?” Honesty? Kindness? Diligence? Apparently, according to John, the answer is, Yes.

Can it really be that simple? Remember last week? That, in spite of all the circles of worldly power, the Word of God came to John in the wilderness. So, it’s not such a stretch to believe that, in the simple acts of sharing, honesty and resisting the urge to be bullies, we are preparing the way for the Lord.

Let me be clear. I know that we don’t bring the kingdom; God does. But we can join with John in pointing to the coming of God’s kingdom by living like it’s already here, like we believe that it’s really coming, like we think is actually matters.

Augustine once wrote, “Without God we cannot; without us, God will not.”

We are surrounded with opportunities to be the ordinary saints John calls us to be. And if you think your everyday actions don’t count or don’t matter, ask yourself this: What would it look like if our elected leaders acted this way? Or all of our public officials? I suspect our world would work a whole lot better.

But let’s not point fingers at others. What would it look like if we went out from here looking for opportunities to live like we believed that being honest, kind, and hardworking in a culture that is impatient, immature, and fearful really makes a difference? Because, it does make a difference. It makes a difference because God is love.

Michael M. Rose, author of Becoming Love. Avoiding Common Forms of Christian Insanity, wrote “Love always precedes repentance. Divine love is a catalyst for our turning, our healing. Where fear and threat may gain our compliance, love captures our heart. It changes the heavy burden of the ‘have-to’s’ of imposed obedience to the ‘get-to’s,’ a joyful response to the genuine love of God.”

John doesn’t tell the crowds to move to the wilderness, or stop being tax collectors, or to quit the military. Instead, he points them to the very places where they already live and work. He calls on them to change their lives in those very places, for the love of God, for the sake of the world, and to prepare the way of the Lord. There’s a 20th century saying for this: Bloom where you’re planted.

Because of God’s promise to save the world through Christ, you and I are freed (thus, we are also called!) to be attentive to caring for our little corner of the world; right here, where we are planted. Whether you work in an office, or drive an Uber, or teach school, or visit the sick, or play the piano, you are free to nurture and love those around you, right here, confident that God will complete the good work already begun in you.

So, my sisters and brothers in God, as you continue to prepare for the coming of Christ, remember these three things: The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything. Rejoice…always! Amen.

 
 

181209

9 December 2018
Advent II - C
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
Malachi 3:1-4
Benedictus Dominus Deus
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

 

In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

May I have your attention, please?

There are only 15 shopping days left before Christmas.

Now there’s a voice that gets our attention, isn’t it? We are surrounded by shrill, competing voices, calling us to countless places.

It’s only the beginning of Advent, and we’re constantly called to look to the past and to the future at the same time. Where are we supposed to look? The past? The future? It’s a little like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz: “look that way” (gesture).

So, we’re already stretched pretty thin when, into the midst of this tension steps the scruffy figure of John the Baptist calling us to pay attention to the now…now!

If we focus only on the past and/or on the future – we will miss what’s going on right in front of us – here and now. And what IS in front of us, here and now? That, that now, is the Word of God.

With so many voices competing for our attention, just where do we find the Word of God? Let’s look at the opening verses of today’s Gospel.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea (ih-TCHUR-ee-uh) and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness (Luke 3:1-2).

Now, there’s an introduction. Luke’s gospel is meticulous in spelling out the details of the moment. We learn what year it is, who is in charge, exactly where earthly authority and influence are situated. Luke paints for us a seven-fold picture of Roman and Jewish power: Emperor, Governor, Rulers and Priests. And yet, within and beyond these circles of worldly power, the actor is God. As we will see over the coming year, Luke constantly shows us that God is acting where you and I least expect it.

So, allow me to paraphrase: “Despite Tiberius being Emperor of Rome, despite Pontius Pilate, Herod, Phillip and Lysanius being provincial rulers, and despite Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, God chose to speak to a nobody named John living in the desert.”

You and I have witnessed an endless parade of powerful, professional, pontifical people pass into obscurity. They have held the headlines, transformed the tabloids, been called news makers, been honored as Woman (or Man) of the Century. Imagine!

But did any of them, like John the Baptist, call us to prepare for God’s Kingdom? To turn from self-interest and look toward the good of the whole – even the whole planet? What do you think? I think, probably, not so much.

I’m not just picking on the politicians and celebrities here. The same could be said for preachers and pastors who have paraded themselves in the same public arenas, as did Annas and Caiaphas. I think the Word of God seldom enters history through a flashy and powerful religious industry.

For me, Advent is an annual reminder that the Word of God came, and continues to come, not to the powerful, to the great and good nor, very often, to the religious establishment. Instead, the word of God came to John in the wilderness.

This is why I try to walk through Advent slowly. I need some wilderness – to be quiet, to focus, to breathe – to take time to listen for the Word of God. It’s too easy for me to get caught up in the work of the season, to be distracted by the stores and the number of shopping days, by the news of famous and infamous people. Without some wilderness, I can forget that God is acting at the centre of all things.

The Word of God often comes to me through people that history will not remember and often, I suspect, through those that we would not call religious: folks in 12-Step programs, grandmothers and God-Mothers, and little children, co-workers and folks who live on the very edges of society. These are wilderness voices who, like John, receive the Word of God and share it, constantly calling for something new.

Advent slows us down so that we can hear this message of God’s upside-down kingdom coming into the world, smoothing the rough ways. Of course, that sometimes means political things because, when people are involved, it’s always political. But it starts with God’s action. God is acting at the centre of all things, often where we would least expect it.

Once we believe that God is at work in the world, our expectations are bound to be overturned. The God who appears as a vulnerable baby in a manger and, again in glorious majesty at the end of time, doesn’t need the validation of a palace, a priest, or even the press.

Instead of expecting the word of God to come on CNN or Fox News, or even in church, this Advent I am trying to be mindful of listening for the Word of God in the actual people who surround me every day in my actual life. If you have not already found a spiritual practice for this Advent, I invite you to join me on this particular journey to Bethlehem.

The quiet of Advent gives us all the chance to re-tune our ears, to pay attention – real attention – to the now. Sometimes in shouts, sometimes in whispers, the Word of God is coming. Prepare the way of the Lord; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’

Amen.

 
 

181202

Advent Sunday, Year C
2 December 2018
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-9
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

 

In the name of God-With-Us: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
 
Sometimes it’s hard to figure out how to begin, isn’t it?
How to start a term paper?
How to start a musical composition?
How to start a difficult conversation with a loved one?
For that matter, how to start new liturgical year?

Sometimes it seems that the best way to start is to think about where you hope to end up. Of course, you must accept that the road will curve along the way, but still, it’s often easier to reverse engineer – to work your way backwards from the end.

This is what the Church invites us to do today.

But here we are, bustling around, preparing for a serious holiday season. Don’t we all want to skip forward a bit? To get to the beautiful prophesies of Isaiah? To the cherished Nativity stories of Matthew and Luke? And yet, here we are, all done up in purple, slogging through another set of readings about the End Times. I mean, really, it can make us a little cranky. After all, Advent is only four Sundays long – can’t we just move on?

No, in fact, we can’t. One of the challenges in living the Christian life is that we’re an “already, but not yet” people. We are always looking in at least two directions at once – retelling our history and re-imagining our hope, all at the same time. Knowing and not knowing. Our ending is our beginning, and we always begin at the end.

There is a platitude that goes, “it’s all about the journey.” What I want to suggest to you today is that it’s all about the journey-ING – the journey is a given. But it’s how we start, what we put in the car, and how far down we roll the windows of our hearts that make all the difference.

+ + +

When we begin to hear the code words of apocalyptic writings – signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and roaring seas – how many of us turn our headsets to the “do not disturb” setting? After all, these passages can be embarrassing, can’t they? Sure, we can process the thought of a glorious, well-garbed, Christ the King ruling over the whole earth. But all that fear and foreboding and judgement? My mother might have said, “it’s just not very nice.”

On the other hand, many of us have been bludgeoned by fear-mongers in Christian clothing who spread a sort of brass knuckles “straighten up and get right with God or you’ll get left behind” theology.

But either of these responses – dismissal or fear – result in the same things: paralysis and inaction. There is another option – hope. And to help us get there, let’s look at the readings again, turning our headsets back to the “on” position.

Today, we hear the prophet Jeremiah speaking to the people of Israel during the Exile. The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem, and the Temple, and had transported the people some 900 miles from the promised land. It’s hard to imagine a greater catastrophe for the ancient Israelites: Jerusalem and the Temple were in ashes, and they were forced to live in a land not their own.

In the midst of this darkness, Jeremiah speaks God’s promise of hope: The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. The days are surely coming. Now, that’s good news!

But, listen! Jeremiah goes on! In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. Justice and righteousness. And a righteous Branch Here is more good news! And our next question is always “when?” “At that time.” Another case of already-but-not-yet.

Some five centuries later, Luke invites us to think about coming times of disaster and loss. Yes, some people will faint with fear and foreboding, but we are told to STAND UP and RAISE OUR HEADS. Raise our heads? Surely not so that God can lop them off!

We are commanded to raise our heads, to pull them out of the sand, so that we can see our redemption drawing near. This, too, is cause for hope. And rejoicing.

Let me be clear. I’m not talking about a “don’t worry, be happy” theology. The judgment of Christ at the end of the ages ought to cause all of us some concern. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God – the glory in which God created us to participate, to enjoy, to be.

And yes, it’s true that there will be very real pain at the convulsions and upheavals that come when God re-forms the earth; when God re-forms our very lives. Even we in the Episcopal Church are faced with some rather substantial ground-shifting lately.

Now, I’m never accused of being a biblical literalist, but on this Advent Sunday, pain and agony are not what we have from Jeremiah or Luke. But, if we can’t respond with paralysis and inaction, what in the world are we to do? My friends, we can rejoice!

The more we’re stretched with the tension of trying to look both backwards and forwards at the same time, the grumpier we become. But I invite you today to hold both past and future together and to let your eyes linger for a moment on the present. The here. The now. Today’s collect calls us to just such a stance. We ask God to give us the grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light… now (in the time of this mortal life).

It’s too easy, after all, to see only the distant cosmic in these visions, to make them theologically important and personally irrelevant. One of the temptations of Advent is to let ourselves off the hook – not to see the signs of the Lord’s relentless and ever-present advent…now. It’s relatively easy to believe that God has spoken and will speak again in the future. But do we dare to believe that God speaks now? To you? To me? To us?

Do we dare to raise our heads from of the clutter and confusion of natural disasters, politics and cable news to see that Jesus is continually invading our lives in ways both large and small?

+ + +

In a few moments we will affirm that we believe in Jesus who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. But I don’t think that this judgment is Jesus coming to “fry” those who are in some way deficient. No. We await the coming in glory of our Savior who will embrace and restore everything in us that reflects God’s image.

Everything else – what we call sin – is done away. For we believe that our sin, every sin, all sin, was nailed to the cross when Jesus was. You see, we believe that the Cross was the Righteous Branch that Jeremiah spoke of. Our sins and shortcomings were paid for by Jesus’ passion, and its lasting effect done away when he rose from the dead.

The gift the church gives us every year is one more opportunity to encounter this deep truth -- and then to constantly re-shape our lives in response to that self-giving, forgiving love revealed in the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So then, in your journeying through this Advent, what will you make of those unexpected moments on your trip when your plans and expectations are shaken, when roads are closed, when the map has blown out the window, when the sun, moon and stars stand still, when the waters roar and the waves rush in? What will you make of these moments? For they will surely come. Will you dismiss them with a shrug? Will you roll up the windows and turn up the radio in fear? Or will you see in them signs of the Lord’s coming to you in the midst of life and respond with repentance, trust and hope? Perhaps, even, a little joy?

“When these things begin to take place,” Jesus tells us, “look up and raise your head, because your redemption is drawing near.”

My prayer is that, when you see the power of God coming, you might have the grace to raise your heads, look far down the road and, run, don’t walk; run out to be embraced by the One who is our life and our light and our hope. Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee!

A blessed Advent to you all. Amen.

The stalk, the cross