The burning bush and the barren fig tree

  Luke 13:6-9

Something’s wrong with this fig tree:

A land-owner came looking for fruit on his fig tree, but it was barren.
So he called the gardener and said, “This fig tree isn’t producing anything!
Cut it down!”  But the gardener answered, “Let me dig around it
and put manure on it. If it doesn’t bear fruit next year, then you can cut it down.”

There was a prolific fig tree in Grandma Ross’s orchard. That fig was truly a tree – it was taller than the walnut trees around it, bending its branches down to the ground, where they rooted again and again, taking over a whole corner of the orchard.

Our boys loved that tree, hiding under its branches, and eating the figs. When they finally came out from under it, their faces were always smeared with fig juice.

If fig trees usually produce so many figs, what’s wrong with the fig tree in Jesus’ parable? After years of waiting, it’s still just a bush.

Maybe we can get a clue from Exodus, which tells us of another kind of bush.

  Exodus 3:1-14

The LORD appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of a bush.

And Moses heard God calling him, saying:
I have seen the misery of my people…
Indeed, I know their sufferings,
and I have come to deliver them from the Egyptians,
and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land,
a land flowing with milk and honey.

But Moses knew he wasn’t a great speaker, and he didn’t think he’d make a good leader. So (partly as a delaying tactic) he asked for God’s Name:

Moses said to God,
“If I come to the Israelites and say to them,

‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’
and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

And God said to Moses,

I am who I am.
Go say this to the Israelites,
“I am has sent me to you. …
This is my name forever, for all generations.”

For several reasons, the ancient Hebrew text is difficult to translate, but the Hebrew letters have usually been translated into English as

I am who I am …. or …. I will be who I will be. 

But there’s yet another way to understand this text, not just literally (knowing the letters), but spiritually (knowing what the text means).

  H <— V <— H <—Y
                                                         (Hebrew is read from right to left)
The Sacred Name

In modern times, we English-speakers have often pronounced God’s Name as YAHWEH. But throughout history, Jews considered God’s Name so sacred that it
could not be spoken. This Sacred Name was called the Tetragrammaton (which
simply means, 4 letters) – Y, H, V, H. 

Wherever the Jews saw these four letters in the text, they would not pronounce them. Instead, they would substitute another word – Adonai (the Lord) or Elohim (God) or Elohim ‘ayyim (the living God).

And today, when you read Exodus in an English Bible (or in our bulletin this morning) you’ll see that the English translators have followed the ancient Jewish custom: instead of printing God’s Name, they have substituted L-O-R-D (always in capitals).  Wherever you see L-O-R-D, the original Hebrew has Y, H, V, H. 

Richard Rohr uses this passage from Exodus to teach the Yahweh Prayer: *

“Many are convinced that these four letters represent (and even imitate) the sound of breathing in and breathing out.  If they are right, that means God’s Name was not spoken at all – it was breathed!

Y—H—V—H   (pronounced Yood—Hay—Vov—Hay)

“In Hebrew and in many other languages, the word for “breath” also means “wind” and “spirit”. (In Chinese the word chi adds energy or life to the meaning – which helps us feel God’s creative energy, as well as Spirit, or breath.)

“Now if God’s Name is breathed (not spoken), this means that….

each and every moment of our lives, we are speaking the Name of God;
the Name of God is our first word as we enter this world;
the Name of God is our last word as we leave this world.

“And it also means that Y—H—V—H is ….

the same wind that hovered over the waters at the beginning of creation;
the same breath that God breathed into Adam’s nostrils to give him life;
same breath that Jesus breathed out upon the cross;
same breath that Jesus breathed on his disciples after his resurrection:
the breath of the Holy Spirit, the breath of peace, of shalom and forgiveness,
the breath of hope, and the breath of life.

“Notice that there is no American, African, or Asian way of breathing….

There is no Protestant or Catholic way of breathing.
There is no Jewish or Muslim way of breathing.
There is no rich or poor way of breathing.
That’s because the air of the earth is one and the same air,
and God’s divine breath, or wind, “blows where it will” –
which is everywhere.

* Adapted from The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See

To live fully, we humans need to learn how to breathe the breath of God, whose Spirit permeates us and everyone else on earth.

Indeed, the Spirit of God, the breath of God, fills the whole earth, and everything that lives upon it.

And now, back to Jesus’ fig tree

I don’t know who, or what, provoked Jesus to tell this parable.

Maybe it was the suffering of his people, crying out against their Roman occupiers; Maybe it was someone in the crowd, struggling to understand his teaching;
Maybe it was the religious leaders, stuck in their old ways of thinking.
But whoever it was, Jesus saw that their roots were stuck in hard, hard, ground.

Let the roots breathe, said the gardener to the landowner.

Everyone who’s ever kept a plant knows that they need to water it.  But did you know that roots need air as much as water?  It’s very common to see hard, compacted soil in people’s gardens or pots.  Whenever the soil has no air left, roots struggle to breathe.

Roots, and people, need to breathe.

What was wrong with the fig tree?
Maybe the Spirit of God, the breath of God, the wind of God
needed to penetrate the hard soil packed around that fig tree’s roots,
so its roots could breathe again.

What do you find overwhelming these days?

The suffering of so many, many people – all around the world?
Your own health? The health of someone you love?
Our threatened environment? The next natural disaster?
Our country’s politics? Our world’s divisions?

God sends us, like Moses, to set his people free.
But most of us are just like Moses — we don’t think we’d make good leaders.
After all, we think, what can  do?

Whenever we are afraid of the future,
whenever we are afraid of a difficult assignment,
whenever we know we can’t possibly do it by ourselves,
let’s remember to let the Holy Spirit breathe through us.

Whenever I’m afraid, I try to remember the Yahweh prayer, and breathe it —
in and out, again and again, until my own roots are aerated,
until I remember again:
God is right here. 

I try to remember to begin with the Yahweh prayer.

This prayer can free us to live fully in spite of our fears.

 

Preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Kenwood, on March 24, 2019

 

* To watch Richard Rohr lead the Yahweh prayer, go to
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNBKt87AWjA (Part 1)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCsh_R5-HuA (Part 2)

 

The Whole Picture

In today’s gospel reading Luke tells us how Jesus called his first disciples. (Luke 5:1-13).

We may remember Mark’s story better, because we’ve heard it more often – Jesus is walking by the Sea of Galilee; he sees Simon and Andrew casting their nets into the water; he calls them, and they drop their nets and follow him. Then, walking a little further, Jesus sees John and James, mending their nets. And he says to them also, “Come, follow me.”

Luke’s version has many more details. Luke tells us that Jesus is not just walking along the lakeshore: he’s been teaching, and the crowd is already so large that it is pushing him into the water. So he asks Simon (who is washing his nets after a long night of fishing) if he can sit in his empty boat, and Simon agrees. So Jesus climbs into Simon’s boat and continues his teaching.

And then, instead of getting out of the boat when he’s finished, Jesus tells Simon to take the boat out again, into the middle of the sea, and put his nets down in the water one more time.  But Simon (who perhaps didn’t care if Jesus sat in his boat while the nets were being cleaned) now objects to going back to work, because he knows there aren’t any fish out there. Yet (perhaps impressed with Jesus’ authority after hearing him speak to the crowd), Simon agrees to take the boat out again – and now the nets are filled with fish.

Over the years, this part of Luke’s story has sometimes been called the “miraculous catch”.  But the catch didn’t have to be a miracle – there were often large shoals of fish in the sea of Galilee.  One fisherman might not be able to see the fish from his boat, but a man in another boat could; or someone standing on the beach might see them very clearly. So Jesus didn’t make the fish appear, nor did he need extraordinary eyesight; he could have just seen the fish, and pointed them out to Simon.

So where’s the “miracle” in this story – is it about catching fish, or is it about seeing in a new way?

What if we could see in a new way?

With the right kind of vision, everything “snaps” into place. Then we begin to see details we’ve forgotten all about, or perhaps never seen before.

When our oldest son was about 8 or 9, he got his first pair of glasses. I remember how excited he was, riding in the car on our way home from the eye doctor – he was just bouncing up and down in his seat, pointing out things he had never seen before on the street he’d traveled so many times before. For the first time in his life, he was seeing everything – the whole picture.

And, more relevant to me all these years later, friends have had cataract surgery, and once the old lenses were gone, suddenly they were seeing see true colors again – no more yellow light clouding their vision.

What if we could put on a pair of glasses that allowed us to see the world the way God sees it?  What if we asked Jesus remove the film from our eyes?

Jesus tells us that God sees differently than we do – God sees not just the details, and God sees not just the true colors, but God sees the whole picture. When we begin to understand this – that God sees the world differently than we do – we’ve taken our first step towards seeing the world the way God sees it.

When we are willing to let go of our cataracts – let go of our comfort with the ways things seem to be; let go of our acquired cynicism, our hopelessness, our fears for the future, our partial experience that we thought revealed the whole picture….then we’re letting ourselves see the world the way God sees it.

Seen through God’s eyes, the whole world is interconnected.  God sees that I’m connected to you, and you’re connected to others, going back through our DNA all the way to the beginning of time. God sees the rich connected to the poor, and the powerful to the powerless, and citizens to non-citizens…  And in God’s eyes you and I, and every human being on this earth, we are all connected to the earth itself, and to every single plant and animal on this earth.

And the bond of interconnection, the bond that connects us to each other (whether we see it or not), the bond that connects us to our Creator, the bond that connects us to the natural world, that bond is love.

At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus is already seeing with God’s eyes. He has come out of his 40 days in the desert to his home country, Galilee, and begun to teach.

But just a month from today, the gospel for the first Sunday in Lent will take us back into the desert, reminding us of the temptations Jesus faced. When that morning comes, listen carefully to each temptation the devil offers Jesus.

With each temptation, the devil will paint a picture for Jesus – a picture of bread for a hungry man; a picture of political power for a man hungry to make the world a different kind of place; and a picture of spiritual power for a man hungry for God.

But Jesus will respond to each temptation with another picture – a picture of food that truly nourishes; a picture of political power that also shows the human cost; and a picture of spiritual power that sees the world in its true colors. And that spiritual power is love.

What if we could see God the way Jesus saw God?

In today’s gospel, Jesus’ message to Simon (and to us) is not about fishing. Jesus’ real message is about how to see God.  Listen again to what Jesus says to Simon:
Don’t be afraid.

Since the New Year started, I’ve been reading through Luke’s Gospel and I’ve seen that this same message comes to every person in the story: to Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist; to Mary, the mother of Jesus; to the shepherds out in the fields; and now to these fishermen on the sea of Galilee…. The message is always: Don’t be afraid.

And it’s this same message that Jesus wants us to hear:
Don’t be afraid.

Notice that Jesus is not saying – Be afraid of the God who will judge you harshly unless you join up and fly right!  Notice that he is saying:
Don’t be afraid of God!

Too often Christians have tried to convert others to Jesus before they have really understood Jesus’ picture of God.  These attempts at evangelism have often had an underlying theme:  “Be afraid of the God who will judge you harshly unless you join up and fly right!”

But long before we try to bring someone to the Way of Jesus, we need to learn how to see God the way Jesus sees God. Then — looking at God through Jesus’ eyes — we can begin to see the world the way God sees it. Only then can we truly share Jesus’ message with others.

As we listen to Luke’s gospel this year, we’ll hear Jesus unfold his message again and again; and that message always begins with:
Don’t be afraid. 

Jesus tells his disciples (and us): Don’t be afraid.  God loves you, and welcomes you, and will always be with you.  So let’s take the first step today: Let’s ask God to rip off our cataracts. Let’s lift our eyes to the face of a loving God. Let’s try to see the world as God sees it. And above all, let’s learn to love as Jesus loves.

And now may the God of immeasurable love,
who calls us all to love without measure,
guide us this day and always;
may God’s strength uphold us,
God’s love enfold us,
God’s peace empower us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

 

Preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Kenwood, on February 10, 2019.

The Body of Christ

1 Corinthians 12:1—13:13

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were times when the Corinthians drove St. Paul crazy – and the words we’ve heard this morning were written in one of those times.

The Corinthians were so proud of their spiritual gifts. Some could speak in tongues, and others could interpret those tongues; some even had the gift of prophesy. The people who could speak in tongues were very full of themselves, and those who couldn’t speak in tongues were envious. The people who could prophesy looked down on those who couldn’t prophesy. The people with gifts of healing wished they had the gift of tongues.

And don’t get me started on their pot-luck suppers! They gathered regularly for the Eucharist, followed by supper.  They all brought dishes to the table, but the rich brought a lot of food and ate most of it themselves – while the poor ate from their own meager rations and from the rich people’s leftovers.

They were all baptized in water, and all baptized in the Spirit, and they all wanted to follow Jesus – but they still had so much to learn!

*

When Rob and I were first married and starting graduate school, we found an Episcopal church that we liked for its music and its preaching. We didn’t know anyone in the congregation, but we decided to make it our church home anyway.

After about a year a new group of ‘young marrieds’ was formed by the junior priest – he was new, too. In our meetings and our own little pot-luck suppers, we talked about the importance of building community, and our priest encouraged us to reach out to other parishioners, starting with coffee hour on Sundays. I was very shy then and couldn’t bring myself to do this, , but Rob got the message about community life, and the very next Sunday he decided to introduce himself to someone new.

Now you have to picture Rob in those days – he was 22, but looked younger; even his Sunday clothes were the student variety; his shoes were run down at the heels; and he wore heavy, unfashionable glasses (to protect his eyes from chemicals in the laboratory, but he only had one pair of glasses). Now watch this young man walk up to an older man he sees standing alone at coffee hour; watch him extend his hand, and hear him saying brightly, “Hello! I’m Rob Ross!” And now watch the older man stare down his nose at Rob, not shaking his hand, but simply saying, “I’m your Vestryman.” (I don’t think that would happen here at St. Patrick’s!)

Four years later, at that same church, the same man approached Rob at another coffee hour and said to him, “How are your studies going?” And Rob replied, “Oh, I’m finished now, and I’m on the faculty.” (Rob was still wearing the same scientist glasses, but I think he was wearing better shoes.) And the man said to Rob, “Oh, well, in that case, how would you like to be on the Vestry?”

Someone really didn’t get Paul’s message.

*

In the reading we’ve heard this morning – from chapter 12 – St. Paul tells the Corinthians that every member of their church has spiritual gifts. He also tells them that their church is like a human body: they are all connected, and every one of them is necessary for the whole body to function.

In the chapter before this (chapter 11), Paul had reminded them that sharing and mutual caring are the very foundation of the Eucharist. And in the chapter after this (chapter 13), Paul returns to his theme of love and caring, because love is the life blood that holds a church together. But we usually hear chapter 13 – one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible – in the context of a wedding (or perhaps at a funeral where we honor someone who was especially loving and giving).

We rarely hear Paul’s teaching about the church from beginning to end. Today, I want you to hear the whole message. (I know St. Paul has a reputation for being convoluted and hard to understand, but I think if we hear his whole passage about the body, we’ll begin to “get” his message.)

*

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are varieties of service, but the same Lord. There are many forms of work, but all of them, in every person, are the work of the same God. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. One person, through the Spirit, has the gift of wise speech, while another, by the power of the same Spirit, can put the deepest knowledge into words. Another, by the same Spirit, is granted faith; another, by the one Spirit, gifts of healing, and another miraculous powers; another has the gift of prophecy, and another ability to distinguish true spirits from false; yet another has the gift of ecstatic utterance of different kinds, and another the ability to interpret them. But all these gifts are the work of one and the same Spirit, who distributes them separately to each individual at will.

For Christ is like a single body with its many limbs and organs, which, many as they are, together make up one body. For indeed we were all brought into one body by baptism, in the one Spirit, whether Jew or Greek, whether slave or free; and that one Holy Spirit was poured out for all of us to drink.

A body is not a single organ, but many. Suppose the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body” – it still belongs to the body. Suppose the ear were to say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body” – it is still part of the body. If the body were all eye, how could it hear? If the body were all ear, how could it smell? But, in fact, God appointed each limb and organ to its own place in the body, as God wanted.

The eye can never say to the hand, “I do not need you”; nor the head to the feet, “I do not need you”. Quite the contrary: those organs of the body which seem more frail than others are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, while our more respectable members do not need additional respect. God has combined the various parts of the body, giving special honor to the humbler parts, so that there might be no division in the body, but that every organ might feel the same concern for all the other organs. If one organ suffers, they all suffer together. If one flourishes, they all rejoice together.

Now you are Christ’s body, and each of you a limb or organ of it. Within our community God has appointed in the first place apostles, in the second place prophets, thirdly teachers; then miracle-workers, then those who have gifts of healing, or ability to help others or power to guide them, or the gift of ecstatic utterance of various kinds. Are all apostles? all prophets? all teachers? Do all work miracles? Have all gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues of ecstasy? Can all interpret them? The higher gifts are those you should aim at. And now I will show you the best way of all.

I may speak in tongues of mortals or of angels, but if I am without love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. I may have the gift of prophecy, and know every hidden truth; I may have faith strong enough to move mountains; but if I have no love, I am nothing. I may give away all I possess, or even give my body to be burned, but if I have no love, I am none the better.

Love is patient; love is kind; love envies no one. Love is never boastful, nor conceited, nor rude; love is never selfish, never quick to take offense. Love keeps no score of wrongs; love does not gloat over others’ sins, but delights in the truth. There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, and its endurance. Love will never come to an end.

Are there prophets? their work will be over. Are there tongues of ecstasy? They will cease. Is there knowledge? it will vanish away. For our knowledge and our prophecy alike are partial, and the partial vanishes when wholeness comes. (When I was a child, my speech, my outlook and my thoughts were all childish. When I grew up, I was finished with childish things.)  Now we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face. Our knowledge now is partial; then it will be whole, like God’s knowledge of us.

There are only three things that last for ever: faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of them all is love.

This morning, on the day of our Annual Meeting, can we hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church?

 

Preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Kenwood on January 20, 2019. 

Prepare the Way

There’s a voice in the wilderness crying, a call from the ways untrod:
Prepare in the desert a highway, a highway for our God!
The valleys shall be exalted, the lofty hills brought low;
Make straight all the crooked places where the Lord our God may go!     
Hymnal #75

This Advent hymn perfectly captures the excitement of the herald on the desert road, calling people to prepare a way for the coming king.

Even today, in desert landscapes the long roads from one town to another always need repairs after a winter’s winds and rains. In Jesus’ day, the major Roman roads were made of stone, but throughout the empire other roads were still tracks through dirt and sand.  So at the end of each winter, the highways needed to be made smooth again…. the rock slides cleared off, the deep holes filled…..the drifts of sand swept away.

The prophet Isaiah, whose words are repeated again and again in the New Testament
(although we may recognize Isaiah’s words from Handel’s Messiah!) says –

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low:
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”             Isaiah 40:3-5

And now the prophecy is retold by Luke, with John the Baptist as the herald.  Like all heralds, John’s job is to clear the way for the One who is coming next.  But also — and here John the Baptist sounds a new note — those who serve the coming king will not only smooth out the rough places and fill in the potholes so the king can come to his people: this king is going to turn the world upside down.

We hear this in the second verse of the Advent hymn:

O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up to the heights and sing!
Proclaim to a desolate people the coming of their King.
Like the flowers of the field they perish, like grass our works decay,
The power and pomp of nations shall pass like a dream away.

John the Baptist is proclaiming the same message as Mary in her song, the Magnificat:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord…
for God has looked with favor on his lowly servant…
God has scattered the proud in their conceit,
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.          Luke 1: 46-55

Both Mary and John are proclaiming that God will lift up the lowly, cast down the powerful, give food to the hungry, and command the satisfied to share their bounty. (Our world has made some progress towards God’s kingdom over the last 2,000 years, but we still have a long way to go — and so God is still calling us to join in the task of clearing the way.)

Luke’s Gospel has 24 chapters, and every chapter proclaims the greatness of the Lord.

It’s not just Luke’s last chapter, where he describes two of Jesus’ disciples, walking in sorrow away from Jerusalem.  On the road to Emmaus they meet Jesus, their Risen Lord.       Luke 24:13-35

It’s not just Luke’s first chapter, where he describes the angel Gabriel, visiting a poor young woman named Mary, telling her she will bear a son, whose kingdom will never end.        Luke 1:26-38

It’s not just the eleventh chapter, where Luke collects Jesus’ teachings on prayer: the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2-4) and the prayer of persistence (Luke 11:5-13); or Jesus’ own prayers in his Last Supper, which we find near the end of the Gospel (Luke 22:14-20). 

And it’s not just Luke’s middle chapters, where he records some of Jesus’ greatest parables:  there’s the great banquet in chapter 14, to which the host invites not his family, nor the rich and powerful, but the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind (Luke 14:7-14). 

And there’s the joy of God the Father in chapter 15, which Jesus portrays through the  parables of the lost and found: the lost sheep, the lost coin — and the prodigal son (Luke 15:3-32). 

I’d like to encourage you to read Luke’s Gospel this year: for the history that Luke tells us… for the stories he collects … for the parables he remembers… for the prayers he gives us … and above all, for this Gospel’s truth and beauty.

On most Sundays this coming year, we’ll be hearing from Luke’s Gospel. But the readings will jump around, as we move from Sunday to Sunday, and the sermons you hear after the Gospel will be from the preacher’s point of view. (Just as you’re hearing my point of view today!)

I’d like to encourage you to read this Gospel from beginning to end, so you can see and hear the whole story.  Read just a bit at a time…. then meditate on what it means to you.
And then, when you come back to the Gospel, pick it up where you left off.

You can read the Gospel on your own, or with a member of your family, or with a friend, or a group of friends. But – and this is so important – I encourage you to read this Gospel without consulting the experts first.

Yes, that’s right – whether you’re alone or in a group, listen to your own heart first,
before you listen to what some book says about it – even if books written by the greatest scholars.

Why should you listen to your own heart first?

Luke, you may know, also wrote the Book of Acts.  Acts is not only the second volume of Luke’s masterwork, it is the book that records the work of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit poured out on you and me.

In the second chapter of Acts, St. Peter quotes the prophet Joel:

In the last days, God declares,
it will be that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
          (Acts 2:17-21, Joel 2:28-32)

That same Holy Spirit will always meet us in the Gospels – speaking first to our hearts, then to our minds, and finally to our innermost souls, calling us to keep working to prepare the way of the Lord.

I learned this lesson the hard way.

In seminary, I always read the experts before I wrote an essay or a sermon, to be sure I got my facts right – because that’s what my professors were looking for.

But a few years after seminary, I signed up to take week-long course at the College of Preachers, on the grounds of Washington’s National Cathedral.  (The pictures of George Bush’s memorial service at the National Cathedral this week brought back memories of the times I visited and studied there.)

The first course I signed up for was to be taught by one of the Episcopal Church’s
leading experts on preaching, and the author of many books on Christian education for all ages.

That first afternoon, the classroom was filled with clergy from around the country and from several denominations, all of us eager to meet this popular author in the flesh.

Then the speaker arrived – a simple, unassuming man with a very quiet voice. (A greater contrast with John the Baptist you can’t imagine!)

He began the session by talking about the power of the Holy Spirit, working in and through the Scriptures to teach us, and inspire us, and guide us. And he finished the session by telling us this:

Never read the experts first – always read the Scripture first.

“Listen to what the Spirit says to you in your own heart…

“You can always trust the Spirit to speak to you…. and if you don’t hear it right, you can trust the Spirit to correct you.

“The Spirit will speak through the commentaries, yes – and the Spirit will also speak through others who may be reading with you…. but…

Always listen to the Spirit first.”

This author of many books wasn’t telling us that books and knowledge aren’t important, he was just saying that books and guides are not enough. We need to begin by listening to the Holy Spirit speaking in our own hearts, and only then listen to what others have to say.

This coming year, let’s prepare the way for the Spirit’s coming into our own hearts, into our own lives, into our own communities.

Let’s roll away the rocks, sweep out the sand, fill up the potholes, and straighten the old crooked pathways…. to make room for the God who yearns to turn our hearts, and our world, upside down.

Preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Kenwood – December 9, 2018. 

 

 

The Widow’s Offering


Mark 12:41-44

Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and
to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses
and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. Then a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he said to his disciples, “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had.”

The widow

Some of the most important people in the Bible are nameless. The widow in today’s Gospel is surely one of them.

When Jesus saw her putting her coins into the Temple treasury box, he pointed her out to his disciples, as an example for them. But what was she an example of?

(We are now once again in the stewardship time of year, and many are the sermons that have pointed to this poor widow as an example of someone who gives her all to her church and to charity – and I’ve preached one of those sermons myself!)

It’s true that the poor among us are much more likely to give sacrificially than the rich – perhaps because no one knows better than the poor what poverty feels like.

But have you ever thought that Jesus is not talking about money here, but about something else altogether?

The setting

So let’s step back from this widow for a moment, and look at the context in which her story has been set.

Mark’s Gospel has been telling us that this week is Jesus’ last week on earth.

The week began when he entered Jerusalem, riding on a lowly donkey, while massed Roman legions were marching through another gate to maintain order during the Passover.

Then Jesus went into the Temple and drove out the merchants who had set up their tables in its courts, selling their wares and in the process swindling the poor.

Returning to the Temple the next day, he sat down to teach his disciples and the others who crowded around him. He warned his disciples to watch out for the self-important people who were walking proudly through the Temple, ostentatiously depositing their offerings in the treasury – the same people who took away widows’ houses and scorned the poor.

And that’s when Jesus pointed to this widow, putting her last coins into the treasury box.

The disciple’s offering

In just two more days it would be Passover, and the Last Supper, and the night in Gethsemane, and the trial before Pilate, and the cross on Calvary.

Just like this poor widow, letting her last coins fall into the treasury, Jesus was pouring out his life – teaching, healing, giving, suffering, dying.

At the Last Supper he would even take the cup of wine and tell his disciples – and telling us, in every Eucharist – “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many.”                                                                   (Mark 14:24)

At that moment during supper, his disciples were afraid, but they still didn’t know what was about to happen.

Later on they would remember what Jesus said, and meditate on the lengths he would go to serve others. And later still, they would begin to understand the example he had set for them: he was not only giving himself for others, but calling them to do the same.

The New Testament only begins to make sense when we understand that it was written for Jesus’ disciples – and when we begin understand that we are Jesus’ disciples, too.

So, if we are his disciples, we are called to give ourselves for others — to pour ourselves out, not just into Temple treasuries or into worthy charities, but into the world around us. But to walk the road that Jesus walked – to walk the way this widow walked – that is so hard!

How can we learn to offer ourselves, as she did – as he did?

The disciple’s prayer

I’ve come to understand that prayer is the first step toward offering ourselves for others.

I’m not talking about prayers when we’re using words, whether we’re in church, waking up in the morning or going to bed in the evening, or at times throughout the day when we are stressed or drawn to the needs of others – although of course this kind of prayer is necessary.

And I’m not talking about those times when we’re prayerfully reading, or listening to music, or looking at art, or walking in the natural world, reflecting on the presence and meaning of God in our lives – although of course this kind of prayer is necessary, too.

And I’m not talking about those times when we’re listening to (or watching) the news, feeling our hearts going out to people who are being threatened by fires, crushed by earthquakes, drowned in storms, murdered by guns, rejected for the color of their skin, persecuted for their religious faith – although this kind of prayer is necessary, too.

I’m talking about simply opening our hearts, our minds, our selves, to God – so God can be with us throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year, going with us wherever we go.

Or to say it more accurately, so we can be with God throughout our days, throughout our weeks, throughout our years, going wherever God takes us – following Jesus wherever he goes.

Henri Nouwen writes *

Praying is no easy matter. It demands a relationship in which you allow someone other than yourself to enter into the very center of your person, to see there what you would rather leave in darkness…

Why would you really want to do that?

Perhaps you would let the Other cross your inner threshold to see something or to touch something. But to allow the Other into that place where your most intimate life is shaped – that is dangerous and calls for defense.

An elderly woman brought to a psychiatric center… She was wild, swinging at everything in sight, and frightening everyone so much that the doctors had to take everything away from her. But there was one small coin which she gripped in her fist and would not give up. In fact, it took two people to pry open that clenched hand. It was as though she would lose her very self along with the coin. If they deprived her of that last possession, she would have nothing more and be nothing more. That was her fear.

When you are invited to pray, you are asked to open your tightly clenched fists and give up your last coin. So… when you want to pray… the first question is: How do I open my closed hands? …. Perhaps you can find your way to prayer by carefully listening to the words the angel spoke to Zechariah, Mary, the shepherds, and the women at the tomb: “Don’t be afraid.”

Don’t be afraid of the One who wants to enter your most intimate space and invite you to let go of what you are clinging to so anxiously. Don’t be afraid to show the clammy coin which will buy so little anyway…. Each time you dare to let go and to surrender one of your many fears, your hand opens a little and your palms spread out in a gesture of receiving You must be patient, of courses, very patient until your hands are completely open.”

That day in the Temple, when Jesus watched the widow pouring her coins into the treasury, he saw that she knew how to open her hands wide. He watched her letting go of her fears for the future.

Can we also look at this woman, and learn how to follow her – to that place where we become willing to let God lead us into our future?

Preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Kenwood – November 11, 2018

 

* Henri Nouwen, With Open Hands. Ave Maria Press, 1995.

 

Come, Follow Me


St. Anthony’s Monastery, Egypt

Mark 10:17-22

We can hear today’s Gospel speaking directly to us, through the power of God’s Word – words first spoken by Jesus, words echoing down through the centuries, words which still call us today: Come, follow me.

Perhaps no story in Christian history shows the power of this Gospel more than the story of St. Anthony of the Desert.

Anthony was born in Egypt, the child of Christian parents, only 200 years after the first Christian churches were established. As a child Anthony loved to go to church with his parents, and he listened to the Scriptures read in church so carefully that he remembered them for the rest of his life.

Now when Anthony was about twenty years old, his parents died, leaving him with all their property.

A few months later, on his way to church, Anthony was thinking about a Scripture he had heard on a previous Sunday: How the first Christians had sold their possessions and gave the proceeds to the Apostles for the care of the needy (see Acts 4:35).

Then, when Anthony entered the church, he heard this Gospel being read:

As Jesus was setting out on a journey,
a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him,
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing;
go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving,
for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples,
“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

When Anthony heard these words, he felt they were spoken directly to him. So he sold the property he had just inherited from his parents and – setting aside some of the money for the care of his younger sister – he gave the rest to the poor. Then, taking only a wooden staff and his cloak, Anthony walked out into the desert, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Soon disciples were following Anthony into the desert, gathering around him to live with him and learn from him. (In later centuries other monks would call Anthony the “Father of Christian Monasticism,” because he inspired similar communities of monks, first in the Egyptian desert, and then throughout the Christian world.)

Now these are the words that inspired Anthony throughout his life:

Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

At the end of a very long life, when he knew that his death was approaching, Anthony told his disciples to give his possessions away as soon as he was gone – 3 things in all:
his old wooden staff and two sheepskin cloaks.

In the end, that’s all Anthony had left – two cloaks and a wooden staff.  Throughout his time in the desert, Anthony’s only wealth came from his love of God and from the Word of Jesus.

The Word of God and the Power of Wealth

So Anthony’s story is really a story about the power of God’s Word.  But his story is also a story about the power of human wealth.

By the middle ages, even though they were founded upon the teachings of St. Anthony and those who followed him, many Christian monasteries had become fabulously wealthy because they held onto the money and possessions given to them over the years.

How hard it is to hear the Gospel in the face of wealth, even for those monks who heard it every day of their lives!

Wealth, in Anthony’s time as in ours, always has the power to drown out the Word. Unless the Word is planted so deep in our hearts – teaching us to love others, constantly calling us to share what we have – wealth can keep us from hearing the Word.

Wealth, in our time as in Anthony’s, builds up over the years; we can hold onto it and treasure it, and at the end of our lives we pass it on to our heirs.

And the Word, in our time as in Anthony’s, can enter deeply into our hearts, working there until it prods us into action. But the Word can also go right over our heads.

Some of us will hear Jesus’ words, but we think there’s no way we could follow them. (Some of us imagine that we, too, are being called to walk out into the desert with just a staff and a cloak.)

Others will make a practice of giving away some of what we have: from the ordinary giving of everyday people, to the extraordinary giving of some of the richest people in our country today.

But many who have heard Jesus’ words will still spend our lives collecting possessions and wealth. (Some of us can hear this Gospel, and even Anthony’s story, without really letting it speak to our hearts.)

So what did Jesus mean when he said, “Follow me?”

Anthony heard Jesus tell him to sell everything, and walk out into the desert.

The Way of Love

Very few of us are called to live in the desert; but all of us are called to walk the Way of Love.

The Way of Love will be different for every one of us, but those who have been taught how to love, and those who have learned how to share, can learn to resist the call of wealth.

In Anthony’s life, it was his parents who taught him to love Jesus, and to love the word he heard in church.  In my own life, it was my grandmother, who showed me her love of Jesus, and taught me to share with others. Who taught you the Way of love?

The Word of God is the Word of Love. Love was the Word that hovered over the waters of chaos, at the very beginning of time.  The Word of Love lived deep in the soul of Jesus, who looked on that rich young man and loved him, even though he knew that the man would not find the strength to follow him.  And the Word of Love is still working through the Spirit, who breathes through us here today.

It is the Word of God, the Love of Jesus – who loves us all, and connects us all  – who calls us all to share what we have been given.

My prayer for all of us today is that we will hear these words of Jesus, letting them penetrate deep into our hearts, helping us find the Way of Love, and helping us to share more of what we have been given.

And my prayer for Leela and her family today is that she will someday hear Jesus’ words, and remember Jesus’ words throughout her life: Come, follow me.

 

Preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Kenwood – October 14, 2018
(and for Leela’s baptism)

Learning from the Canaanite Woman

Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre.  He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.  Yet he could not escape notice, for a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.  She begged him to caste the demon out of her daughter.  He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.”  So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.   Mark 7:24-30

Whenever I hear a story from the gospels, I’ve learned to ask myself:

What does this story tell me about Jesus?
What does it tell me about God?
What does it tell me about the world that Jesus lived in?

In today’s gospel Jesus has traveled beyond the border separating Galilee from the land of the Canaanites. Today there’s a heavily militarized border there between Israel and Lebanon. But there were no borders under the Romans –  you could go almost everywhere, because Rome kept an iron grip over every people around the Mediterranean Sea.

But even without borders, there are always walls between people. It seems that we humans have evolved with the need to protect ourselves from “the others” – that is, anyone who is different from us.

And so today we’re still building walls — between peoples, languages, sexes, classes, and religions.

Today’s Gospel shows us this tendency even in the human Jesus: His culture and his Scriptures were telling him that he was called to the people of Israel.  He believed that he had been sent to bring the lost sheep of Israel back into the fold.

He was probably visiting a Jewish home in Tyre. (It’s still a city in southern Lebanon today, bombed for decades now by Israeli planes and armies.) But into this Jewish home comes a Canaanite woman, begging healing for her daughter.

And now we see Jesus changing his mind – he begins to understand that his call is not only to his own people, but to anyone seeking the love and mercy of God.

Jesus changed his mind? Now the story gets interesting!

Maybe Jesus wasn’t born knowing everything. Maybe he had to learn and grow — just like us — and maybe he, too, had to stretch his mind to see his world as God saw it.

Perhaps Jesus was divine not because he was all-knowing, but because he knew how to open his heart to God. Perhaps, growing up, Jesus had to learn how to listen — and how to be aware of the needs of others.

Perhaps Jesus also had to learn how to pay attention to his own deep feelings, and then to reflect on the meaning of these things. (Perhaps he learned to “ponder these things in his heart”, as the gospel says of his mother Mary).

I think Jesus always yearned to “dwell” – to live and move and have his being –
in that place where God lives.  And in learning to “dwell” – listening, feeling, reflecting, praying – he learned to understand where God lives.

But notice, in this Gospel story, that Jesus also found the strength to return to God whenever he found himself off-base, whenever he was wrong, whenever his vision was incomplete.

Can you do that?  Can I do that?

Usually I can understand what’s right and what’s wrong, and often I can see where God dwells, but still it’s hard to move myself to that place.  Yet that’s what we see Jesus doing in his encounter with the Canaanite woman.

So we look again at this Gospel, and ask:

What can we learn about Jesus? He was a human being who lived and learned,
with a unique ability to stand where God stands.

What can we learn about Jesus’ world (and ours)?  We humans have always lived in a world of walls, and even when the walls are breaking down, our first impulse is to build new ones.

What can we learn about God from this Gospel? The God of Jesus Christ builds no walls, but embraces the world.

The early church had to remember the Canaanite woman. They had to remember her because she taught Jesus about the breadth and height and depth of God’s love.

And so, down through the centuries the Canaanite woman has been teaching the church about God’ love, through this Gospel we’ve heard today.

In the 16th century, when the English prayer book was written, the authors still remembered this woman; and you probably remember her prayer, too. We always called it “the Prayer of Humble Access”, but we could have called it “the Prayer of the Canaanite Woman”):

We do not to presume to co:me to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.  We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy…. BCP p. 337

And in the late 20th century, the poet Brian Wren wrote this hymn, which says it all:

When Christ was lifted from the earth, his arms stretched out above
through every culture, every birth, to draw an answering love.
Still east and west his love extends and always, near or far,
he calls and claims us as his friends, and loves us as we are.
Where generation, class, or race divide us to our shame,
he sees not labels but a face, a person, and a name.
Thus freely loved, though fully known, may I in Christ be free
to welcome and accept his own, as Christ as accepted me. Amen.

To hear the hymn, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_EupYa9VxiQ

Preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Kenwood – September 9, 2018.


A Whale of a Tale

The Prophet Jonah Before the Walls of Ninevah
Rembrandt

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Mark 1:14-20

After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

A whale of a tale

The Bible tells us that Jonah, the man we’ve heard was swallowed by a whale, was actually a prophet. So here are three things to know about prophets:

(1) Being a prophet is never easy;
(2) Prophets are called to be truth-tellers, not fortune-tellers; and
(3) Everyone – not just a special few – has a call to prophesy.

(1) Being a prophet is never easy:

Today’s lessons (at least, the portions we’ve heard this morning) make being a prophet look easy. Jonah saves 120,000 people (not to mention every animal) in the enemy’s city. Jesus walks along the Sea of Galilee and calls disciples, and they immediately drop everything to follow him.

But would you really want to be a prophet? (Just look at the Gospel again – Jesus’ story begins with John the Baptist’s arrest by Herod.) Everyone knows that being a prophet is never easy.

We all know about Jonah, the man who is said to have survived in the belly of a whale, but we don’t much else about him. Actually, the story of Jonah was originally a legend that circulated all around the Middle East. When we lived in there in the sixties, we visited two beach towns – one in Lebanon, the other in Syria, which called themselves “Nebi Yunis,” (the Prophet Jonah in Arabic) – each town proclaiming that it was the very place where the whale coughed Jonah up.

How can a human being survive for three days in the belly of a whale? That’s the question the name of Jonah usually raises. Biblical literalists still argue that Jonah really survived his time in the whale, thinking this old story is about miracles. But it’s not a story about miracles at all – it’s a story that points out how hard it is to be a prophet. It’s even a story that makes fun of prophets.

(Here are some more reasons not to be a prophet – you might be killed; you might be thrown into jail; you might be hated; and you certainly will be laughed at.)

After centuries of being told as an oral legend in various languages around the Middle East, the Hebrew book of Jonah was written around 500 years before Jesus was born. The writer takes the old legend and turns it into a short story. It’s a very short story, only four chapters long.

God calls Jonah to be a prophet, but Jonah doesn’t want to do it. The whole idea of going all the way from Israel to Ninevah, a big city in today’s Iraq, to be a prophet turns Jonah off. He is absolutely sure that no one in Ninevah, a great foreign power, will listen to him.

So Jonah runs away to Joppa, a city still on Israel’s Mediterranean coast today, and there he boards a ship heading for Turkey. He thinks he’s escaped God’s call, and falls asleep happily in his bunk on the ship.
And while Jonah sleeps, God stirs up a great storm. The ship’s crew becomes desperate, and each sailor falls on his knees, begging his own god to save them. Finally, after a couple of stormy days, the ship’s captain comes down and wakes Jonah up from his nap, asking him to pray to his God, too. Maybe Jonah’s God will stop the storm.

But Jonah already knows why the storm has blown up – God’s angry at him. So Jonah talks the crew into throwing him overboard, thinking that this punishment will take away God’s anger. And Jonah is right – the storm is calmed and the ship survives.

But now a great sea creature (which we call a whale) is sent by God to swallow Jonah. For three days and three nights Jonah suffers inside the fish’s belly. He finally confesses his disobedience, and he begs God for mercy. Then God speaks to the sea creature, which spits Jonah out onto dry land.

Now, after his rescue, Jonah knows he has to go to Ninevah, to tell the people there to repent. So he walks the thousand miles to Ninevah, muttering all the way that no one will listen to him. But when he gets there, he hurries through the streets calling people to repent – and to his surprise, they do! The people beg for forgiveness – and God, being a forgiving God, does forgive them. What a great outcome to Jonah’s hard work!

(2) Prophets are called to be truth-tellers, not fortune-tellers:

But Jonah is furious, and he angrily tells God this is the reason he tried to run away. He says,

“Oh Lord, Isn’t this what I told you when I was still in my own country? Isn’t this why I ran away? For I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

(What Jonah meant was this: “I knew that you would be merciful to the Ninevites, even though they are foreigners and don’t believe in you!”)

So Jonah finishes by saying, “Now, O Lord, just put me out of my misery.” And in his snit, Jonah goes outside the city and sits down in the scorching sun, prepared to die. But God makes a bush to grow up over Jonah, to give him shade. And Jonah is happy for the shade. But the next day, a worm comes and attacks the bush, and it withers away. Then the sun rises, a great east wind comes up, and the hot sun beats down on Jonah’s head, and once again he begs God to let him die.

Then God says to Jonah: “So you are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people and also many animals?” And Jonah says to God: “I knew that your are gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…. But who is getting your mercy? Me? Or these foreigners, who don’t even believe in you?”

(3) Everyone, not just a special few, has a call to prophesy:

Increasingly in this nation, we are becoming foreign countries to each other. Many of us, like Jonah, are beginning to think that God should have no mercy on the foreigners, the illegal aliens, or the lazy poor. Others are thinking that God should have no mercy on the haters, the prejudiced, and the penny-pinchers who won’t spend an extra cent to help the poor.

And most of us are still thinking that one person, the right person, will make all the difference and lead us to the promised land.

So here’s the task ahead of us: we don’t need any lone prophets, we need a multitude of prophets to speak the truth.

So, what prophetic word is God giving to you?

 

Preached at St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church
January 21, 2018

Walking the Jordan River

Waters shall break forth in the wilderness…
Isaiah 35-10

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God…
Psalm 46:1-12 

On either side of the river is the tree of life, with its twelve kinds of fruit,
and the leaves of the fruit are for the healing of the nations…
Revelation 22:1-5

Then Jesus came to the Jordan, to be baptized by John….
Matthew 3:13-17 

The Jordan River winds through the whole Bible, a sacred symbol for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  Jews remember that their ancestors crossed through the Jordan into the promised land.  Christians remember that Jesus came there to be baptized in its waters. And Muslims remember Muhammad, whose closest companions were buried there.

In today’s Gospel Jesus steps into the Jordan…. not just to be baptized in a symbolic action, but to be completely drenched in the river.

Are you ready to step into the waters, too?

Walking the river with Jesus

As a young boy, Jesus probably climbed into the mountains north of his home in Nazareth, perhaps even reaching the springs that feed the river near Mt. Hermon.

Cascades near Mt. Hermon

He would have seen farmers using the Jordan’s water to irrigate their farms…

The upper Jordan

He would have hiked around the Sea of Galilee, formed by the river over many centuries.

The Sea of Galilee

And as a grown man, after his baptism in the river, we know he climbed into the dry hills above the Jordan, to wrestle with his call to ministry.

The lower Jordan desert

Walking the river today

I invite you to walk the Jordan River with me this morning.  We could choose to hike along the Colorado River, sacred to the Native Americans who live along its banks, dammed by American engineers, and diverted to American farms before it reaches Mexican land.

Or we could walk along the Ganges as it rushes south through India and Bangladesh, or along the Nile as it winds through the nations of North Africa.

We could be walking almost any river on Earth, because every river has ecological, human, and spiritual value to the people who live nearby; but we’re walking the Jordan today because it already has spiritual value for us, and it is crying out for practical solutions to its many problems.

The Jordan from outer space

For a river with such mighty meaning, the Jordan River is very short – only 156 miles long.  It was once more than 75 feet wide, flanked by willow trees and poplars and filled with fish that could be eaten; but today, at its best the Jordan is less than 6 feet deep. It’s become more like a creek than a river.

The river flows through some of the most dangerous and disputed land on Earth.  Its sources begin in the mountains where the borders of Lebanon, Syria, and Israel meet.  Then, below the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan forms the border between Israel and two Arab nations.

But the crisis facing the river Jordan involves more than international politics.  Today environmentalists blame Israel, Jordan and Syria for crippling damage to the river and its ecosystem. 70% to 90% of the river’s waters are used for human purposes along the upper Jordan, and the remaining water comes from sewage and the contaminated agricultural run-off.

at Yardenit

Just below the Sea of Galilee, the modern pilgrim comes to Yardenit, where the Israelis have created a pool of clean water.  Every year more than 600,000 pilgrims come here, to step in the water, to be baptized, or to be re-baptized. If you only saw the Jordan here (as most Christian pilgrims do) you might think that the Jordan River is still robust and vibrant.

at Alumout

But just a few miles south of Yardenit, we come to the Alumot Dam, which diverts the fresh water into Israel’s national water carrier.  A small sewage treatment plant processes the rest, sending a thin stream of brownish-yellow sewage water back into the stream. As the river continues south, the sewage from thousands of Israelis living in the upper Jordan Valley; from thousands of Israeli settlers and Palestinians on the West Bank; and from a quarter-million Jordanians provides the Lower Jordan River with most of its water.

at the Island of Peace

A few miles south of Alumot, we come to the “Island of Peace”. To find an Island of Peace anywhere in the world is rare, but to find it in the Middle East is a miracle.  The land here is Jordanian, but it’s owned and farmed by an Israel kibbutz.  100 years ago, kibbutz leaders received permission from Jordan to build a hydroelectric power station, and the canals and dams built for the station created an island.  In spite of continuing conflict Israel ceded the area to Jordan 25 years ago, as part of the Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace. Jordan agreed to lease it back so the Israeli farmers could continue to cultivate the land. The kibbutz on the Island of Peace continues to this day; international pilgrims still visit; and Friends of the Earth – Middle East hope (now called EcoPeace) hopes to create a “Jordan Peace Park”.

at Bethany beyond the Jordan

A few miles south of the “Island of Peace” we come to al-Maghtas – or “Bethany beyond the Jordan”. This is the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism – honored and visited for nearly 2,000 years of Christian history.   Today pilgrims walk down steps that led to a deck on the river’s edge, and – if they dare – can step into the Jordan’s waters.

Two years ago, EcoPeace led journalists on a tour of the river.  One of the journalists recorded,

“One look at the river and we understood why we came on the trip. It was pitiful.  The Jordan River, for all its fame, was a narrow  brownish stream that gurgled its way south.  On the opposite side, just a few meters away from us in Jordan, was a similar wooden deck where tourists came and went.

“One pilgrim put on a white cloth and calmly entered the water. The guide, who had been explaining how the river turned from gushing rapids into a fetid stream, stopped mid-sentence as we all watched in horror. “

Sometimes our convictions about spiritual truth the can blind us to material reality.

   at the Dead Sea

A few more miles, and we come to the Dead Sea. The Jordan always ended here; the waters have no outlet because the sea is so far below sea level. But today the Dead Sea is truly dying, shrinking by the day as its waters are drained away for human use.

The Jordan River is the latest victim of the Syrian civil war

More than 3 million refugees have fled Syria to date, and over half a million have settled in bone-dry and water-impoverished Jordan.   Environmental issues are understandably a very distant second to humanitarian concerns, but the rising numbers of refugees needing water have reduced the river’s flow to a trickle.

Za’atari refugee camp

One of the Jordan’s major tributaries, the Yarmouk River, flows southwest out of Syria and forms the border between Syria, Jordan and Israel.  Nearby is the Za’atari Refugee Camp, the second largest refugee camp in the world and now the fourth largest settlement in Jordan.

(To illustrate the impact that humans have on these rivers, note this: When refugees began to flee southern Syria, the amount of water flowing downstream to the Yarmouk water greatly increased – because the water is no longer being used by Syrian farms and towns.)

EcoPeace Middle East  

EcoPeace Middle East is an international organization active in environmental peacemaking. With 40 paid employees and hundreds of volunteers, EcoPeace publishes scientific and social research, spearheads national-level advocacy campaigns and engages in grassroots community development.

One of EcoPeace’s major goals is the rehabilitation of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.  Its Good Water Neighbors project engages residents of all ages, mayors and municipal representatives in 25 communities throughout all three countries in a united effort to rehabilitate the regions’ shared water resources.  Amazingly, considering the region’s problems, EcoPeace has made surprising headway in encouraging cooperation to save the river.

A study by EcoPeace scientists shows that the Jordan River could return to life with 400 million cubic meters of fresh water annually.  Where would the water come from?  Half would be returned by Israel, a quarter by Jordan, and the last quarter by Syria.  EcoPeace says those percentages are based on historically who has taken what.  “Historically, Israel has taken 46% of the flow. So it can at least return that much and because of its [strong] economic situation it can return more.”

Impossible?  The work EcoPeace has done with local councils and the media has created a public outcry which in turn has convinced the local authorities near the Sea of Galilee to finally build a sewage treatment plant, which will treat the waste and then use that water for other purposes.

A proposed Jordan River Peace Park is another source of hope to EcoPeace . Its leaders envision an island national park where Jordanians, Israelis, and Palestinians, who so seldom meet, might congregate and try to overcome their differences.

What are we going to do about water?

This has been another week when we’ve felt defeated by American politics, alarmed by world leaders threatening war, and overwhelmed by monster hurricanes and earthquakes.  Can we muster any energy to save earth’s waters?

Every worth-while task is daunting.  It doesn’t matter whether you want to save the salmon in the Columbia River or the Morro Bay Estuary, share water equitably from the Colorado or the San Joaquin delta.  It doesn’t matter whether your water issue starts with underground wells in Cambria or Paso Robles, or the with the cost of treating sewage in Los Osos.

But if Israelis and Jordanians can maintain an Island of Peace in a region of war, what could we do here?

I know that everyone here this morning is already personally doing something to care for the environment.  We’ve learned to recycle, take shorter showers, stop using Styrofoam cups and plastic bottles  – small personal actions that mount up when we do it together.  But how are we working together to pressure our local officials, our national leaders, to make better decisions about water?

If some brave Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians can cooperate to save the Jordan River, can’t we muster the patience to deal with our own neighbors, with our community service districts, with our county, state and national leaders?

How big a task is too big for us?  Let’s return to this morning’s psalm:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved,
though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea.
though the mountains tremble at its tumult.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
Psalm 46

As I see it, there are two ways to respond to what this psalm is saying.

We could hear it saying,  Don’t worry, leave it to God.
Or we could hear, God will give you strength to do the work before you. 

What do you hear?

Every worth-while task is daunting, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.


The Mud Creek Slide

Yesterday when Rob read this verse – the mountains toppled into the depths of the sea – he was reminded of the great slide on Highway One north of us – and the mind-boggling challenge of repairing it.

So Rob asked, should we wait for God to fix this – these mountains that have tumbled into the sea – or can God give us strength – the strength to decide to fix our infrastructure, to repair our roads and our dams, and then agree to pay taxes so the state of California can fix it?

Rob says that’s one thing he can do.

What’s  your  “one thing”?

Preached at St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church, Los Osos
River Sunday: September 24, 2017

 

Wrestling with God


Jacob Wrestling with the Angel – Rembrandt
Genesis, chapters 25-50

Jacob wrestles with God

  • Jacob’s story: Jacob’s story takes up 25 chapters in Genesis.  (It’s a family saga, and it’s also a Biblical soap opera.)
  • Today’s reading: Jacob is still traveling, and preparing to meet his brother Esau again; even after many years, he’s still afraid of what Esau may do to him and his family. (Whatever Esau chooses to do, Jacob knows he deserves it.)
  • Wrestling with fear: Jacob doesn’t sleep, but wrestles all night with the unknown future that waits in the morning.  (But there’s Someone else there along with the dangers – Someone who won’t let him go.)
  • Wrestling with God: It turns out Jacob is meeting God again; first it was the dream of a ladder joining heaven and earth (Genesis 28); now, it’s a God who won’t let him go (Genesis 32).

We all wrestle with God

  • I believe every human being wrestles with God, whether they believe in God or not.  There is Something – or Someone – who calls us, accompanies us on our way through life, Someone or Something who won’t let us go.
  • Andy’s story: For many years, as he struggled with mental illness, our son Andy was haunted by the kind of Christianity that pictures God as judgmental and even eternally condemning.  After he died, his last journal was sent to us, and we found notes he’d written while listening to a radio sermon about Jacob.
  • God never lets us go: There were pages of notes from this sermon that captivated Andy, but the bottom line was this:  Jacob was a ‘schemer’– and so was Andy – but God loves them anyway, and will never let them go.
  • Face to face with God:  In listening to this sermon, Andy had come face to face with the loving God of Jesus.

Finding the Face of God in the Bible 

  • Each of our lessons today reminds us of a time when someone came face to face with God.
  • Jacob wrestled with God in the desert, and learned that God was with him every step of the way. (God left his mark on Jacob, a wound he would carry for the rest of his life.)   Genesis 32
  • Moses wrestled not just with God, but with the people of Israel – Jacob’s descendants. (God gave Moses the Commandments, and afterwards his face shone with the intensity of the encounter.)  Exodus 34
  • Jesus wrestled with God’s call (not just with the devil!) in the desert;and for the rest of his life he followed the direction God had given him.  (On the mountain, the disciples came face to face with God’s presence.)   Luke 9
  • Paul never met Jesus in the flesh, but he met him on the road to Damascus: in a blinding light, Paul came to understood he was moving in the wrong direction.    Years later, Paul would write, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.”  Acts 9; 1 Corinthians 13
  • This is the God of redeeming love that Andy finally met again at the end of his life – seen through Jacob’s story, read in the light of Jesus.

Our culture wrestles with Jesus – or at least wrestles with ideas about Jesus 

  • Some ask, “Did Jesus really exist?”
  • Others ask, “Was Jesus really the Son of God?
  • Some say, “You must believe in Jesus (my version of Jesus) to gain eternal life.”
  • Others say, “Jesus a great teacher, but his lessons were meant for a simpler world.”
  • Many Christians believe Jesus is still a window into the nature of God.
  • I believe that the God of Jesus Christ is a God of unending love and compassion.

What do you see when you wrestle with Jesus?

 Preached at St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church, Los Osos
August 6, 2017