Oldtown Sermons by the Rev. Katrina F. Clinton
- March 4, 2001: "Temptation" Lent One Luke 4:1-13, Holy Communion
- March 11, 2001: Lent 2: Lamentation Luke 13:31-35
- March 25,2001: C Lent 4 "Forgiveness" Luke 15: 11-32; 2 Cor. 16-19
- April 1,2001: Blesssedness Lent 5 Is 43:19; Phil 3: 13b-14; John 12:1-8
- April 15,2001: Easter. Isaiah 65: 17-25; John 20:1-18
- April 29,2001: CHOSEN INSTRUMENTS Easter C3
- "Temptation" Lent One Luke 4:1-13 , Holy Communion
It was in 7th grade Science class that I remember so vividly I gave into the temptation to cheat on a test. We had gotten to the part in our studies that had to do with that elemental chart and the chemical names of certain compounds- you know like salt is NaCL and water is H2O. The test was a simple match the compound or element with it's chemical letters- 50 questions in 2 columns, one with numbers, the other with letters, upper case then lower case.
Now I had a B- going into this test-Science and Math were not my strong subjects. This test would determine whether I got a C or a B. My father was accepting of A's- that's what I should be getting. He was tolerant of B's, and he was critical of C's and woefully disappointed at anything else.
One of my greatest weaknesses is memorization of facts and figures. History did me in because I could not remember all the battles by their dates and places. So here I was with a list of chemical names and all I could really remember were water, salt and gold. So I decided to make a little cheat sheet, whereby I wrote all the symbols down on a very small piece of paper with their corresponding identity and then wore a long sleeved shirt so that I could put the paper up my sleeve. I was glad that I sat in the 7th row back. It would be easier to look at my sleeve.
I filled out the test and then I thought, Oh, I had better scramble two of the answers so that it won't look like I cheated. I'll be happy with a 96. I didn't want to call attention to myself as the only one to get 100 on the test.
It took 2 days for the teacher to correct and hand back the tests. I was a nervous wreck. I was sure my name was going to blasted over the loud speaker and I would be called into the office for cheating.
But Mr. Whatshisname- see I told you I have a poor memory- gave back the tests and had a way of calling out the scores so everyone knew what you got on the test. He kept calling out 100, over and over again. Half the class got 100. I only got a 96. Then I was mad at myself for switching the two answers. But what I found out is that many people do not have this memory affliction that I have. There are people, kids who are very good at memory work.
But my real lesson was that giving in to the temptation to cheat was not worth all the worry, the digestive problems, the paranoia, and the feeling of not earning something honestly. I got away with it, but my whole body was telling me the victory was just not worth it. I never cheated again, and consequently I brought home a lot of c's and d's in the math and sciences and I even flunked a college history course.
Temptation never has to look far for justifications, does it/ it's always packaged so beautifully.- What's the harm? Who could it hurt? Why not? You deserve it. Nobody will ever know.
When Jesus was FILLED with the Holy Spirit, he was led into the wilderness, and there he faced 3 temptations. The first was to turn stone into bread. He had not eaten in 40 days. He was famished.
"You must be hungry, suggested the devil. It's easy, a piece of cake- or a loaf of bread- just use all that special power you have to turn this stone into bread. Then you can fill that aching belly. Who's it going to hurt? You have to keep up your strength you know." But Jesus' answer was NO. Man does not live on bread alone." He told the devil that he was not going to abuse his status as the Son of God just to give in to his human desires. He did not have to prove his sonship to the Devil by using his power in such a way. No. He trusted that God would sustain him through the wilderness and he would eat when God provided the food for him.
I wonder what wilderness you are facing in your life. Do you believe that God will sustain you through it all? Can you let go of the need to control everything around you and try to "fix" everything. Can you let go and just live in the wilderness trusting in God? I wonder.
The second temptation was to have authority and power over all the nations of the world. "All this will be yours, if you will but worship me," says the devil. "So what's the big deal, Jesus? Isn't this what God wants- all the nations of the world to acknowledge you as the Son of God? Isn't this what the kingdom of God is all about? I'm offering you a shortcut. It's yours. Take it. Everything you are called to do- your whole purpose and task- finished in an instant. All ya gotta do is worship me. " And Jesus said, "NO. Scripture says worship the Lord your God and serve him only." He told the devil that the commandment to worship God alone was more important than finishing the task quickly. He trusted God to bring about the Kingdom in God's own time in God's own way. Quick and easy power was not to be achieved by denying or compromising the primary relationship with God.
I wonder. Anyone here feel pressured into compromising your deepest and truest values for the sake of some easy solutions, useful power, quick and practical problem solving? What do you think- is the compromise worth it? What is the cheapest price for your soul these days? What if you do hold on to your highest values and have to lose everything you've worked so hard for? What will be the price of your integrity? Are you willing to put your security on the line for the sake of your principles? Can you trust God to take care of you when you've lost your job and alienated co-workers? I wonder.
The third temptation was for Jesus to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple because everyone knows that angels will protect the Son of God. "You want followers? You want to win people for God? You want to bring in the Kingdom. Jump. Jump and when the angels save you, everyone will see and believe. They'll line up by the thousands to follow you. Once they see a miracle like that, you've got em hooked. Jump, Jesus Jump!" And Jesus said, "NO, Do not put the Lord your God to the test." Jesus told the devil that he was not running a religious revival spectacular featuring the "Amazing Jumping Jesus and the Saving Angels." This was not the kind of Savior that he was going to be. He was going to call disciples one by one and ask them to have faith rather than follow because of miraculous proofs and certainties about just who he was. The religion Jesus had in mind was about faith, not guarantees based on divine power that had to be tested time and time again by miracles and signs. Believing in Jesus Christ was going to take a risk, a leap of faith, a trust in God.
I wonder. I wonder if you're tempted to test God: "Just give me a sign and I'll believe. Just show me your power - answer this prayer the way I want it answered, and then I'll follow you." Can you take the risk of faith, the great leap across the great chasm of doubt? Can you say, "Nevertheless, I will believe and hold fast to my faith in God." Can you face loss and still believe in a loving God? Can you watch suffering and still claim that God is a God of mercy? Can you witness to the grace of God in a world that seems grace-less? I wonder.
The tempter knows us inside and out. Evil preys on the weakest places in us. Evil whispers justifications to us, reasons why giving in to temptation is not a bad thing. It is the Holy Spirit that gives us the strength to say, NO. When Jesus went into the wilderness he was filled with the Holy Spirit. That is what enabled him to remain strong and to turn his back on the devil. When we are tempted, we have an inner resource of strength. It is more than will power or personal courage. It is God-sent. It is the Holy Spirit that strengthens us and upholds us through all the wilderness of our lives.
Here at this Table we are nourished and strengthened by the Holy Spirit. When we eat this bread and drink from this cup that are infused with the Holy Spirit, we are being sanctified- from the inside out. So when temptation comes your way, call upon the strength of the Spirit. Pray the prayer, "Come Holy Spirit, Come" and then feel that great loving power come at your invitation and so fill you that saying no is the easy part.
Evil is always looking for an opportune time to come to us and put us to the test. Being a believer does not make us immune from temptation. Indeed, scripture says that the holier you become, the harder the devil is going to work to get you to renounce your faith.
By the gift of the Holy Spirit we can face temptation and say no and send the devil packing. By trusting in God we will have all we need to persevere through the deepest wilderness and be victorious in the end. That's what the cross and the empty tomb are all about. Believe in this and be saved…from temptation, from fear and doubt, from abandonment and from death itself. We have god's Word on it- the Word that was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen its glory, the glory of God's own Son, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
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- Lent 2: Lamentation Luke 13:31-35 March 11, 2001
In Ecclesiastes we read that "To everything there is a season and a time for everything under the sun." And then the list of opposites follows: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to laugh and a time to weep, a time to mourn and a time to dance. This morning we are focusing on the time to weep and the time to mourn, the time of lamentation.
All you have to do is pick up the newspaper. An eighth grade girl shot a classmate in a PA, RC High School a day after a 15 year old killed two and wounded 13 in CA. It is a time to mourn. A 20 month old toddler was killed by carbon monoxide poisoning while his mother shoveled the snow around the car. It is a time to mourn. A medical student shot the man he was supposed to pay retribution to for an earlier wrong. It is a time of mourning. The floods in Mozambique have killed thousands of animals and people. It is a time to mourn. The war in the Middle East seems to be heating up and North and South Korea are poised again and Saddam Hussein is rattling his saber. It is, indeed a time to mourn.
Lent is the most difficult season to walk through. Weeping and mourning are not welcome things in our society. We are told to "Keep a stiff upper lip," "Take it like a man", "Don't ever let them see you cry", and "Get over it."
But some things take time. Loss of love takes time. The wilderness of being alone takes time. Reframing a life without someone you've invested your love and life and hope in, takes time. And it's hard work. Grieving is work. It takes a lot of energy. When the waves hit you, you are caught unaware and attention is demanded. The hole in your soul demands its own season. "I hurt. Pay attention to me. Acknowledge me. Validate me."
I remember when my Mother died, the family kept vigil there at her bedside. She worked so hard at dying, just as she did at living. And after her work was over, our work had just begun. What do we do now that she was gone? Each day would be different- let alone the times of celebration that she would miss in her earthly form. I used to call her every other day or so. She was part of my decision-making, my ordering of my days and now we all had to reorder our lives to accommodate a spirit instead of a bodily presence.
A time of mourning, of lament is a yearning for what might have been, and a letting go of those hopes and dreams. When Jesus was on the mountain overlooking the city he loved, he realized that once again they were about to reject the gift God had given them. Once again they turned their backs on God. All the plans, the hopes for what might have been were faced with a reality check and all Jesus could say was, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!"
What a wonderful metaphor for the Godhead: a hen gathering and protecting her brood under her wings. The picture is of mother-God calling the chicks together for safety and warmth, but the chicks do not respond, preferring to go their own way to do their own thing and thus open themselves to danger.
Jesus then says, "See your house is left to you." I wonder what that means for you: "your house is left to you-" "You reap what you sow?" "You got what you deserved?" When we are stubborn and follow our own path and neglect the wisdom the Holy Spirit would give us, what "house" are we left with- the house of shame or guilt, of anger or pride? And what comfort is there in those houses? In our Lenten journey from temptation to repentance and forgiveness, we pause at lamentation to feel the hurt of our sin and the pain of our loss. By acknowledging the deep hurt and pain within us, we then can appreciate the gifts of forgiveness and redemption in all their splendor and power.
Psychologists and counselors tell us that the only way through the pain is through the pain. Denial and trying to block it or run around it or even pass over it will not work. The psalmist says even though I WALK - not run, tiptoe, stop, crawl, speedskate or get chauffeured through - but WALK through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for Thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
The Rev. William B. Abernathy is one of the most gifted preachers I ever met. In 1993 on Easter Sunday morning he resigned as pastor of the Wellesley Congregational church after 17 years of service because of his Parkinson's disease. In his final sermon he talked about the earliest image of Parkinson's when he was first diagnosed 10 years earlier. He called the illness the 'man with the muddy shoes' who had moved into the "living -room" of his soul. "I didn’t invite him in. I didn't like him. I wanted him out. But in my imagination he tromped across the rug, settled his frame into an easy chair, put his muddy shoes up on my clean coffee table, and announced that he was here to stay. "
He goes on:
"These last 10 years of mine have included a fair amount of letting go- letting go of pockets of health, letting go of a career I love, letting go of particular dreams I have had for my future…and opening to new dreams as well. The last decade has also been a time of trying to learn certain how-to's: how to express anger at the mud-shod man…How to accept the man with the muddy shoes as part of my life, without letting him take control of my center…how to find an Easter meaning to my future in the midst of Good Friday grief over one dimension of my present.
My Easter faith is that the one who washed the disciples feet 2,000 years ago is also the one who offers to wash the mud off of muddy shoes today. Christ may not get rid of my Parkinson's disease. But he can, and does, offer to wash the mud off. For me that has primarily been washing away my long-schooled, self-reliant loneliness, and making room in its place for the growth of living trust in those who have promised to love me, and I them, through the long haul."
Well I wonder. I wonder who the man with the muddy shoes is for you. Maybe it is a disease, maybe a cancer has come to live in your body, uninvited, unwanted, and now you have to fight it with every bit of strength you can muster and all the radiation and chemotherapy that the medical world signs you up for.
Maybe the man with the muddy shoes is the loss of someone so dear to you that life just doesn't seem worth it, and you wonder if you'll ever know happiness again.
Maybe the mud that needs washing is an old guilt or shame, long buried in your past and from your consciousness that every once in awhile lets you know it is still there, it is unresolved, and it still hurts.
Maybe the mud is a family broken apart by betrayal and lies and mistrust. Can you ever find your way back …or forward to a relationship of compassion and trust?
Maybe the mud is an infidelity, a promise broken, a heart crushed.
There are so many ways we hurt one another and are hurt.
If we cannot bring them to God, and offer up our broken spirits and hearts, what earthly good is our faith?
At the end of Jesus' lament, he says, "And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord." He leaves them with the promise of his return and that is their only hope. God's plan of salvation will not be thwarted by our failure to follow or to respond. If plan A doesn't work, then there's plan B, C,D, etc. because the God of the universe will not leave us to our own solo work of mourning and grieving. Even if it takes a death on a cross to get to Easter morning, there will be a son-rise, there will be salvation, there will be victory over death. Evil and loss and death and shame and grief will never have the last word.
"Our hope is in the Lord, who made heaven and earth." Our promise is that he will wipe away every tear and death will be no more. This is the good news of our story that will usher in the time to laugh and the time to dance, the Easter season of joy. We are an Easter people, brothers and sisters in Christ. While we must walk through the different valleys and in the wilderness of mourning in our lives, we have the sure confidence in the resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit that walks with us through all our seasons, so that we are never alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.
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- C Lent 4 "Forgiveness" Luke 15: 11-32; 2 Cor. 16-19
This morning we have something a little different- a visual aid. This painting by Rembrandt is called "The Return of the Prodigal Son," and it portrays the homecoming, that moment of forgiveness when the younger son comes back to his home after coming to his senses out there with the pigs.
The story of the prodigal son is misnamed, I believe. It should have been called the parable of the Loving Father, for the real point of the story is the forgiving, unconditional love of the father for his sons..yes I said sons, for this is a story not about one wayward son, but about both sons and their different sins that are at the heart of the father's efforts to call them each to a loving relationship.
As you look at the painting, you can see that the light is concentrated in four major areas: the face of the father, the hands of the father on his younger son's back, the feet of the younger son and the face of the elder son.
This morning I want to talk about forgiveness by looking at each of these parts of this painting. A major reference for my remarks is a book on this painting written by Henri J.M. Nouwen.
Let us first look at the younger son. He was the one who left home with his share of his inheritance and wasted it on reckless living. In asking for his inheritance, it was like wishing his father dead. It was a heartless rejection of his home and his family. He wanted to fly to a distant country where all that was considered holy back home would be disregarded. Henri Nouwen describes how we tend to look for love in all the wrong places. He says, "As long as I keep running about asking, 'Do you love me? Do you really love me?' I give all my power to the voices of the world and put myself in bondage because the world is filled with "ifs." The world says, 'Yes, I will love you if you are good-looking, intelligent, and wealthy. I love you if you have a good education, a good job, and good connections. I love you if you produce much, sell much, and buy much." There are endless ifs hidden in the world's love. The world's love will always be conditional. As long as I keep looking for my true self in the world of conditional love, I will remain "hooked" to the world- trying, failing and trying again. It is a world that fosters addictions because what it offers cannot satisfy the deepest craving of my heart….I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found. Why do I keep leaving home where I am called a child of God, the Beloved of my father?"
In the painting we see the son kneeling before his father. His face is unusually vague and murky for such an artist as Rembrandt. Could it be that the lack of detail and the shadows are to make of this son, a faceless, nameless everyman that can symbolize each one of us? The detail of his feet is not to be missed. One shoe off, the other shoe in tatters, to show his broken down state and how far he had come in his returning. It was not easy for him to return. He had his speech all ready- the one where he would say he was not worthy to be a son, and would welcome being a hired servant in the household.
But the father did not even give him the chance to give his speech. He welcomed him as his son, his beloved son. Nouwen says that sometimes it is hard for us to receive forgiveness: "Receiving forgiveness requires a total willingness to let God be God and do all the healing, restoring and renewing. As long as I want to do even a part of that myself, I end up with partial solutions, such as becoming a hired servant. As a hired servant I can still keep my distance, still revolt, reject, strike, run away, or complain about my pay. As a beloved son, I have to claim my full dignity and begin preparing myself to become the father- the one willing to love uncondtionally and to forgive unreservedly.
I wonder how much of the younger son is in you. How have you rejected and rebelled against God in your lifetime? What has happened when you came to your senses? What is the speech you have prepared to say to try to get back into the good graces of family, friends, or God? Have you ever known the gift of forgiveness that doesn't even wait for apologies or explanations, but just embraces you because you are so loved?
Let's turn to the elder son. Here is the one who has been faithful to his father and worked hard on the estate and never ever gotten a party for all his labor. His sin was not the outward behaviors and transgressions, his sin was the inner resentment and anger and jealousy that was just as rebellious and destructive to his relationship with his father as the younger son's was. Nouwen says, "The one who stayed home also became a lost man. Exteriorly he did all the things a good son is supposed to do, but, interiorly, he wandered away from his father. He did his duty, worked hard every day, and fulfilled his obligations but became increasingly unhappy and unfree. It is this lostness, characterized by judgment and condemnation, anger and resentment, bitterness and jealousy that is so damaging to the human heart."
What about you? do you recognize the elder son in you? Do you find yourself complaining about slights and impoliteness. Do you hear an inner voice that grumbles and whines, laments and gripes? Do you get seduced into the darkness of your complaints? Nouwen says that Joy and resentment cannot coexist. The elder son could not go into the party, he could not enter into the joy because his resentment was too strong. Nouwen says that wherever my virtuous self is, there also is the resentful complainer. So he asks if the elder son can come home to receive his father's forgiveness. He realizes that alone he cannot. It is only because the Father is willing to go out to meet both sons that they can each be forgiven. In the parable, we do not know what happens next, if the elder son ever comes into the party. What we do know is that the Father reaches out to the elder son, just as he did to the younger one. The forgiveness of God is always ready, always beckoning, always reaching out. Nouwen says that the disciplines for the conversion of the elder son are trust and gratitude and he points out that gratitude is a choice we make, a conscious choice in how we will live our lives.
Let us now turn to the father in this painting. This was one of Rembrandt's final paintings when he had become old and almost blind. We see in this father not the clear eyes of youth but a physical blindness that defers to a spiritual sight, It is almost as if the hands are doing the seeing. If we look at the hands we notice something very interesting. The father's left hand is a masculine hand of strength with the fingers spread out and you can almost see a certain pressure in the thumb on the boy's back. But the right hand is very feminine looking. It is soft and tender. It lies gently on the son's shoulder as if to caress and comfort. It is like a mother's hand. The comforting hand parallels the bare and wounded foot while the stronger hand parallels the foot with the remnants of a sandal. So we have portrayed in these hands the comfort and the strength of the father who has come out to welcome his son home.
Nouwen says," the parable of the prodigal son is a story that speaks about a love that existed before any rejection was possible and that will still be there after all rejections have taken place. Jesus' whole life and preaching had only one aim: to reveal this inexhaustible, unlimited motherly and fatherly love of his God and to show the way to let that love guide every part of our daily lives. In his painting of the father, Rembrandt offers me a glimpse of that love. It is the love that always welcomes home and always wants to celebrate."
The point of forgiveness is in the end joy. Jesus said that he came among us so that our joy would be complete. Nouwen says, "from God's perspective, one hidden act of repentance, one little gesture of selfless love, one moment of true forgiveness is all that is needed to bring God from his throne to run to his returning son and to fill the heavens with sound of divine joy."
As paul said in out Epistle lesson today, "All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation." That means that if the church has any true mission and ministry in the world it must include the way of reconciliation. In a world bent on mean- spiritedness, we are to proclaim the Spirit of reconciliation that calls all of us sons and daughters and makes us all brothers and sisters.
Nouwen says, "People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not to live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness."
While this painting has so much darkness in it, our eyes are drawn to the light places. To the places of hope and forgiveness, to the places of comfort and strength. To the face of unconditional love that is blind to our sin and sees us as beloved sons and daughters who are always welcome home. The party is ongoing. God bids us join the celebration that repentance and forgiveness began. Come into the joy of the Kingdom of God. The door of forgiveness is open. God is seeking you out to extend to you a welcome embrace. Amen.
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Blesssedness 4/1/01 Lent 5 Is 43:19; Phil 3: 13b-14; John 12:1-8
It was in third grade that I finally was old enough to join the Junior Choir in my church. Then I got to wear the burgundy robe with the stiff white collar in the shape of a T down my front. We would sit up in the chancel in our white stockings and black patent leather shoes waiting for our turn to sing. We passed the time by filling in the spaces of the o's and e's and a's in our bulletin- or crossing out letters to make new words. When everyone stood up to sing the hymns we would make up new words and sing them in each other's ears: My favorite was "Holy, holy, holy, your underwear is Holy" The minister, my father, would give us one of those "Looks" if we got to giggling too much.
I remember the moment when "Holy" changed for me- from "filled with holes," to "filled with sacred." It was during Holy Week, Maundy Thursday more specifically. I always looked forward to seeing the lights extinguished, and the quietness and the different way people walked and talked in the church that night. It was soft and sad and trembling.
One year the Junior Choir sang," Were You There?" at the service. We had practiced it for several weeks and there was this boy, Keith, who was small for his age. He had a beautiful clear voice. But every time he came to the part, "Oh, sometimes it causes me to Tremble, tremble, tremble…." His little body would physically tremble, like he had the shivers or something. The rest of us just thought he was weird…until Maundy Thursday came, and the candles were lit in that great cavern of a sanctuary. The cross was draped in purple, and there was a purple cloth on the altar. The table was all in white with candles in front of each deacon, and they read the story of Jesus, not in the lyrical Irish tones of my father, but in the everyday, faltering and somber tones of ordinary folks trying to do their very best reading this sad story of how Jesus was arrested, tried, sentenced and hung on a cross.
Mr. Hanson, our choir director, always insisted that we memorize all our music so there wouldn't be any rustling of papers and such. So after the readings, we were to stand up and make our way in the semi darkness to the steps to sing our song. Mr. Hanson was playing the music softly while we got into place. There in the darkness with only the Christ candle lit and the glow from the organ light, we made our way to the steps, huddling together against the dark. We could hardly see Mr. Hanson's familiar hand cueing us when to sing. But our little voices began: Were you there when they crucified my Lord- Were you there when they crucified my Lord, Oh oh…Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble- it was then that it happened- the whole choir was atremble- not just one little weird kid, but all of us, trembling together there in the dark, singing about Jesus, and I could have sworn that I knew what it must have been like to really have been there- to have been in the presence of the Holy.
When the psalmist says that we were created a little lower than the angels, we have a sense of the blessedness that was planted in us at our birth, consecrated at our Baptism and evoked time and time again by a grace that will never leave us and a love that will never let us go.
Mary was the sister of Lazarus, who had just been raised from death by Jesus, called out of the tomb by her friend, Jesus. Here they were sitting at table, Martha, Lazarus ( the formerly dead man) and Jesus, and some disciples. Mary recognized the miracle and who was the author of that miracle. She knew "holy" when she saw it, and all she could do was offer an act of praise- pour expensive perfume on Jesus' feet and wash them with her hair. It was costly nard- but what would you give to have a loved one return from death to you? What has cost got to do with it anyway? Who can count the cost of love and devotion? Mary's extravagance was an outpouring of love in response to a love she could not understand, but only stand in awe of it's power and glory. And her extravagant act filled the whole house with the fragrance of the perfume.
She perceived the new thing that God was doing in Jesus. She perceived the holy thing, the sacred moment, the blesssedness of that time and the days to come. When Judas objected to her lavish gift, Jesus told Judas to leave her alone and that she was anointing him not just in gratitude for what he had done but as an act of preparing him for his burial that would be coming soon. The gospel writer, John, foreshadows the events to come in Jerusalem in this story of devotion and perception of the presence of the divine among them in Bethany on that day.
Kathleen Norris says that "there is a powerful moment in any religious conversion in which a person realizes that all of the mentors, and all they have said, all of the time spent in reading scripture or engaged in what felt like stupid, boring or plain hopeless prayer, has been of help after all. It is nothing you have done, but all of it is one event, God's being there, and being of help. The enemies you were facing, whatever obstacles seemed amassed against you, even your own confusion, have simply vanished, And you are certain that it is God who has brought you to this moment, which may even feel like victory." Like the victory of the Israelites over the Philistines in 1 Samuel 7 when God threw the opposing troops into confusion. Then Samuel lifted a stone, and called its name Ebenezer, meaning, The Lord has helped us." And so we will sing today in our closing hymn, Here I raise my Ebenezer, Hither by Thy help I'm come….
And in the last verse we'll sing, "Till transformed in Thine own image"
See, that's what blessedness is all about- being transformed into the image of God, the same image by which we were created.
"This is the prize for which God has called me in Christ Jesus" Paul says in the epistle lesson today. He presses on toward that goal, forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.
In our Lenten journey we have walked through temptation, lamentation, repentance, and forgiveness, and now we are at the point of blessedness- that holy place of knowing we are the sheep of God's pasture- we belong to our Lord. Made in God's image we are infused with grace and are being transformed grace by grace, blessing by blessing into God's own reflection of holiness.
When a Benedictine sister was at her dying mother's bedside, she wanted to reassure her of her passage into eternal life. She said, "In heaven, everyone we love is there." "No," whispered back the old woman," in heaven I will love everyone who is there." Blessedness is about our own transformation, being loved into loving beings.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, I invite you to enter into the holiness of Holy Week, beginning next week. The children will lead us on Palm Sunday with the lessons they have learned about Jesus- come hear the story from their lips, in their eyes. It may make you tremble with joy and awe. Come to the Tenebrae service on Maundy Thursday. Sit in the holy-hungering dark with us and sing. "Were You There?". Attend the noontime services at Hoppin Hill Methodist Church. And then join us for the Easter joy in 2 weeks. We have a witness to make, an opportunity to share the Spirit with one another, to bless one another and to reach out to those seeking a church family; to those who might just visit us for the first time on Easter Sunday. We can say: "You will find a welcome home here. You will find a sacred space here. You will encounter the Holy in this place. You will not find criticism and derision and put-downs, for we are in the business of lifting up."
We are so blessed that we want to be a blessing to others so that they may feel the love of God and know themselves to be beloved sons and daughters of God. Thanks be to God who fills us up and sets us atrembling with joy and awe at the power of the Spirit alive within and about us. Amen.
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- Easter c 4/15/01 Isaiah 65: 17-25; John 20:1-18
"A Rolling Stone"
One of the oldest traditions in the Christian church is that an Easter homily is supposed to begin with a joke to reflect the great laugh Jesus had over death and evil on this day. So here is a funny story for you. A few years back, a then-6-year-old student came up to me the week after Easter to ask me a riddle. Now you have to understand that she had just witnessed the Easter celebrations- had her first communion experience on Palm Sunday, came to the Maundy Thursday service to watch the lights dim and hear the story told and then gone to sunrise service in the park with the guitars strumming and everyone singing "Lord of the Dance," and then to the worship service in the church with the brass quintet and the Hallelujah Chorus with full organ, choirs and brass.
She came to me and asked, "What kind of music is God's favorite music?" so I replied, I don't know, Krista, what kind of music is God's favorite music? "Rock and Roll! She exclaimed, and then prompted me: "Now ask me why rock and roll is God's favorite music." So I said, "Why is rock and roll God's favorite music?" And she responded, "Because God rolled the big rock away so Jesus could dance. Get it?" We laughed and laughed and I concluded that there was one first grader who really did get it- she understood the miracle of Easter.
The saying "A rolling stone gathers no moss," is an adage that teaches us something about movement and stagnation. Stone walls that are meant to stay in one place for years and years, guarding and protecting, are welcome hosts to all kinds of lichen and moss. You would think that the rock that is put at the mouth of tomb would be a wonderful host to the Bryophyte class of plants. There's not much movement in a cemetery, after all.
But when Mary came to the tomb that first day of the week, the stone had been rolled away. Her first conclusion was that thieves had broken in and stolen Jesus' body. When she got Peter and John to come and see, they confirmed that indeed the tomb was empty, but they still did not understand. The angels wanted to know why Mary was crying. When Mary turned around Jesus was there, but she thought he was the gardener, that is until he said her name. Then she knew it was her teacher and friend, Jesus. He told her to go back and tell the disciples that he would be returning to God. So she went back to the disciples and declared, "I have seen the Lord!" Later that night He appeared to the other disciples when they were locked in the house where they used to meet. This is the story that we have proclaimed ever since that first Easter, that Jesus has risen and has returned to God and left us with his presence by the gift of the Holy Spirit. It's really simple, you see: God loves Rock and Roll and the rock was rolled away to let Jesus dance.
That rolling stone, the one that would not allow for stagnation was not moved so much to let Jesus out (he walked through locked doors after all) but to let Mary and James and John and us in, so that we could be witnesses to what had happened. That rolling stone was the first hint that all the rules were about to be changed. That rolling stone opened the door to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, death is not the end of all things. Something new was about to happen. It was just like the Old Testament lesson where the prophet Isaiah brought the Word of God to a people in exile, who thought they knew the end of the story- that they would live and die in exile, and never see their home again. Isaiah proclaimed, "Behold I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered- Be glad and rejoice in what I will create- the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard no more. I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy!"
The Easter rolling stone was a sign that God had indeed acted decisively to change the old order of things- to turn the former rules on their heads. No, death is not the end. No, evil will not win the final battle. No, you are not lost to your pain and sorrow. There will be joy in the morning. There will be dancing in the sonshine of God's love.
There is the story of a young man, Peter, just finishing up his high school years, who had been on the track team and the chorus and was a deacon in his local church as well. At one of the track meets, when he was pole vaulting, something happened and he landed wrong and everyone gasped as he lay in a heap. The paramedics rushed him to the hospital where he fell into a coma. It was determined that he was a paraplegic with paralysis from his chest down. Everyone in town was praying for him. There were candlelight vigils and special fundraisers to help pay the hospital bills and expected costs of refurbishing the house for all the new equipment he would need when he would be released from the hospital.
It was on Christmas day when he finally came out of his coma. The family had come to visit and had brought presents and were singing Christmas carols together. When they got to Silent Night, it was Sarah, Pete's sister who was sitting on his bed who decided to change the words for Pete. Instead of singing "Sleep, in heavenly peace," she sang "Wake, in heavenly peace." The rest of the family joined in and to their surprise they saw Peter open his eyes and show some recognition of them. They were so elated. It was the best Christmas they had ever known. They called all their friends and the pastor to let everyone know that "Peter is back!"
But Peter was not all the way back, because he was in a deep depression. He could or would not talk. They had worked out a signal system. One eye-blink for yes; 2 blinks for no. He communicated very little in those days. The doctors kept telling the family that they really did not know how much he would regain, especially while he was in his depressed state. Everyone tried to think of ways to cheer Peter up. Sarah brought in some of his favorite CD's to play- one of them was Lee Ann Womack's "I hope you dance" the title song had been a favorite of Pete's and Sarah's too because it reflected his competitive nature and love of life before the accident:
"I hope you never lose your sense of wonder
You get your fill to eat But always keep that hunger.
May you never take one single breath for granted
God forbid love ever leave you empty handed…
Whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens…
And when you get the choice to sit out or dance,
I hope you dance, I hope you dance."
One evening a news magazine show had a feature on the Cleveland Ballet Dancing Wheels, which is a dance company of folk in wheel chairs, founded by Mary Verdi-Fletcher, a wheelchair dancer who was born with spina-bifida. Some dancers use a Camber type wheel chair that moves more gracefully because of the roller-blade wheels. Sabatino Verlezza is the choreographer who said, "I hope you can see that it's the spirit of the person that's dancing. It isn't so much how many legs you have, but the spirit of the movement. The chair is Chris's dance shoes. It's not about winning. It's about communicating a thought or a feeling."
Chris Warner, the wheelchair dancer said, "Dance is like a language. I think the policy of the company is, this isn't about therapy, it's about art." The segment ended with listing several other Ballet troupes and also the sport of Wheelchair dance that has international competitions each year and the recreational wheelchair dancing in Ballroom, Folk and modern dance disciplines.
By the time Easter had come, the family had arranged to have the Easter service taped so they could bring it in to Peter and show him the tape. The minister's sermon was about the song. "Lord of the Dance" and how Jesus had a devil on his back on Friday and they thought he was gone, but God is the Dance, and God's dance still goes on. In the last verse when Jesus leaps up high it is because he is the dance that can never, never die,. And when he promises to live in us if we'll live in him then he will become the Lord of our dance.
The minister proclaimed the resurrection power of God which can live in us if we will but live in Christ, and then he invited people to let the Lord of the Dance into their hearts so that they would be able to dance the new dance of new life in Christ. During the pastoral prayer, he prayed a special prayer for Peter and his family, that they would feel the love of the congregation, but also the resurrection power of Christ who makes all things new. Then the whole congregation sang the song: "Dance then, wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the Dance said he. And I'll lead you all wherever you may be. And I'll lead you all in the dance said he."
Peter's family and some nurses and doctors were all crowded in the room, singing along, Dance, Dance wherever you may be….even in a hospital bed. It was Sarah, who glanced over at Peter and saw his finger moving. It seemed to be going in time to the music. She grabbed her favorite nurse and said, "Look, he's moving his finger. Is that a good sign?" "Well it may just be a muscle spasm, but let's just see." Peter, she said, can you move your fingers? Do you know what you're doing?" Yes, he blinked. And then his lips formed a word. Peter's mother leaned closed to hear what he seemed to be whispering. "Dancing" DANCING, he said. Peter is Dancing!
The whole room burst into tears of joy and clapping and cheering. Peter's dancing. Sarah grabbed his hand so that she could dance with him. It was an Easter filled with joy and promise. Oh they had a long way to go, but they knew the Lord of the Dance would never let them down and that Peter had received his resurrection gift and had left the tomb of depression and failure and loss.
Well I wonder. I wonder what the tombs are that engulf you, that hold you back from dancing the Dance of life with Jesus, the Lord of the Dance. It may be a loss, or a guilt or a shame. It may be a depression or a sickness. It may be lack of courage or strength. It may be fear or anger or hurt. Whatever the tomb is, know that God's favorite music is Rock 'n Roll, and that stone is always rolling away opening up the opportunity to claim the resurrection world of light and joy. When you get the chance to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance. And I'm here to proclaim the good news that you don't have to face the music alone. It is by the power of the risen Lord that we can get up and dance, that we can follow his lead. He's been to the cross and back. There is no pain or sorrow or loss he doesn't know about and can't heal. He's been there, and he's come back to let us know that evil and death and loss and sorrow and shame and guilt and accidents and tragedies are never the final answer, for God will always do the NEW thing- roll another stone away, because we are loved that much.
A contemporary poet writes:
The Shout is out!
Good News! Good news!
The stone is rolled away, and the tomb is empty!
Our lord has sprung forth To Dance with the angels And with us
Redeemer and Liberator
And Jesus keeps the stones rolling
Away from our hearts; Away from our pockets;
Away from our minds; Away from our souls.
Keep opening me up, Lord,
Keep the stones rolling away and away
And teach me to dance, to sway
With you as Lord of the Dance
To prance with the Holy Spirit
To fling my arms, frolic my feet
Flutter my heart, wheel my chair…
Whatever it takes, Lord,
To Dance the Dance of New Life- Resurrection!
Brothers and sisters in Christ, the Good News is that God not only loves Rock n Roll but that the beat goes on, and the one who raised Jesus from a tomb 2000 years ago will not stop rolling away all the stones in our lives until we too have claimed the resurrection promise of new life for our own selves. We have it in us to dance with the Lord of the Dance as never before. Don't sit this one out. Join the Dance- follow His steps and become the delight of God! Amen.
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- CHOSEN INSTRUMENTS Easter C3
The first time I heard and saw a live professional symphony orchestra was when I was 15 years old. It was a large auditorium in Springfield and I don't even remember what orchestra was visiting to play the concert. That was the time I fell in love with classical music. Oh, I had heard classical music before, but I had never seen it played live. The first piece was "The Swan of Tuonela," and so I fell in love with the oboe. The man who was playing it was so intense. He leaned into the phrases. He gave such expression to the piece it was like watching a heart breaking. It made me cry. I saw and heard someone who had converted a skill, like playing the oboe, knowing which finger to put where to get what note, into an art of making music which was an extension of his soul. His talent turned his instrument into much more than a note producer- it was a communicator of feelings, of hopes and dreams, of sadness and pathos, of life and of death.
I'm sure we all know folks who have elevated a talent and a discipline to an art form because of their gift and their dedication and their love of their instrument, whether it be playing an oboe in an orchestra, or painting, or dancing, or writing, or teaching, or acting, or cooking, or whatever vocation we can find ourselves called to do in this world.
This morning's scripture lessons focus on some instruments who were chosen by God to play their part in God's symphony, led by the heart of God, and equipped by the strength of the Holy Spirit.
Saul was a persecutor of Christians. He had written orders allowing him to hunt down Christians. He was a bounty hunter. But on the road to Damascus, he encountered the living Lord, who gave him a mission to fulfill. His conversion to being one of God's instruments was brought about by the blinding light and a voice from heaven and the disciples who tutored him and accepted one who had been hated by them. Ananias was also God's chosen instrument and also was converted from his belief of Saul the enemy to his trust that God was indeed doing something new and awesome in Saul. Thus began the life of Paul the apostle, who inspires us to this day with his writings in the epistles and his witness to the truth and light he found on that road to Damascus so many years ago.
In the Gospel lesson we hear of the disciples who had been with Jesus for 3 years, but somehow missed the point. After Jesus died and rose again, they were lost as to what they were to do next. So they went back to fishing, doing what they did before Jesus called them to be fishers of men. There they were, the hand-picked chosen instruments of the Lord, back in the boat trying to catch fish and having no luck. And so we have the miraculous catch of fish reprised for them- Remember? Don't you remember when you cast them at his bidding before and you had more fish than your nets could carry? The nets broke that time, but this time they do not break. Don't you remember your vocation?
Jesus had breakfast with them on the shore: bread and fish. And then he asked Simon Peter, "Do you love me?" He asked him the same question 3 times- maybe to give him the opportunity to negate the 3 times he denied the Lord on the night of Jesus' arrest? Peter answered, "Yes Lord you know that I love you" And Jesus' refrain is "Feed my lambs, Tend my sheep, Feed my lambs." "Peter, forget the fish. I called you out of the boat once before and taught you what you were to do as my chosen instrument. Remember? Remember all those people in need? Remember all the sickness and poverty and sadness? You have been chosen to make a difference in the world. You can heal. You can teach. You can love just like I loved . Follow ME!"
The Risen Lord comes to each one of us with the same challenge- to be disciples and then apostles. See a disciple is a student, learning the ways of the teacher, learning the craft of playing the oboe, if you will. But an apostle is the one who is sent out, who is given a song to play and a Christ to serve and the Spirit to inspire. There is an art to this Christianity- serving the Lord. Some of us do it in serving at soup kitchens, or establishing prayer groups, or running relays for cancer research. Some of us do it by being the best parent we can be, teaching our young ones about how much God loves each and every one of us. Some of us adopt a compassion child, or help Heifer Project International send animals all over the world to change the lives of folks in desperate need. Some of us build houses with Habitat for Humanity, or go help muck out basements in Western Massachusetts, or rebuild homes in North Carolina, destroyed by tornadoes and hurricanes.
We come to church as disciples, eager to learn and to be inspired, but we are supposed to go from church as Christ's apostles- the ones sent out into the world as chosen instruments to make a difference- to be Christ's hands and feet in the world. Listen for the call, be ready to play or dance or sing or work in Christ's name.
Linda is one of my best friends. She was chair of the CE committee of the church in Woodbury, CT that called me to be Christian Education Director in 1974. She was very active in volunteer groups, coordinating the FISH program for the town. Before she had her 3 children she was a Registered Nurse. When I signed up for a Mutual Ministry course at Hartford Seminary, she joined the class too, not knowing exactly why but that she just felt compelled to do it. It was a 2-year course on the ministry of the laity. After her husband was laid off from a major airline, she went back to work as a nurse in a nursing home and rehab center. Then, about 7 years ago a job opened up for the Director of the Hospice ministry in the Visiting Nurse Association. Linda felt that all the training she had had, all the experience of her life, even things that had happened with her children and loved ones all led up to this particular calling. It was as if she had been in a period of discipleship and now she was being called forth and sent out to do Hospice care. Everything came together in an eye-opening moment and she saw the Spirit had been busy all her life to bring her to this moment, this place, this ministry.
Well, I wonder. I wonder if you can see the plan God has for you? I wonder if you are ready to be an apostle? I wonder if you have people around you who will be like Ananias to help take off the scales from your eyes so that you can see what is true for you…what you are being called to do…how your particular gifts and talents will be chosen to take part in the symphony of God's loving plans for the conversion of the world into a place of compassion and harmony.
If all things do indeed work together for good- for God's good, then how are the things in your life conspiring to call you out and send you forth with the good news of God's love. Look for the signs. That strange magnetic pull to a cause or a creature. The tears that too readily flow in a particular circumstance. The delight you feel at the sight of some wondrous thing in your eyes. The stirring up of enthusiasm and energy when thinking about some dream or goal.
Friends we are God's chosen instruments. We each have a part to play, and it is as individual and unique as we ourselves are. There are signposts along our journey, hints for our particular and peculiar call to apostleship. Watch for them. Listen for them. When your passions are stirred, pay heed. It may be the Risen Lord, asking you if you love him, and then saying to you, "Follow me!"
May we have the courage and strength to respond with joy, "Here I am, send me!" Amen.
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