“you are set free from your ailment”

How awesome would it be if we could all hear the words “you are set free from your ailment.” Ailments come in many forms, some are obvious, such as the one afflicting the woman in today’s gospel passage, but many ailments are not obvious, and it is those that I want to focus our attention on. When I first read today’s gospel, I immediately thought that the woman who is healed could very well have been suffering from a mental or emotional ailment and that her inability to stand straight is a possible metaphor for her feeling depressed and Jesus was able to help her shake off her depression. Depression is the leading cause of disability among people ages 15-44 in the United States and can be so mild that it goes undetected or so severe that a person can lose the ability to function normally. Most of the time our sermons, our writings, and our discussions of Christianity center around obvious problems in the world, such as poverty, hunger, and homelessness, and how as followers of Christ we are called to respond to those problems, but rarely do we talk about the internal poverty and hunger that can go along with the tangible problems humanity is facing. Rarely do we talk about hidden illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Rarely do we talk about how we can, and should, rely on God to heal our emotional wounds and how we can help God’s healing love reach others through our actions.

I have a good friend, whose name is Steve, who regularly walks the streets of Greenfield to check in with the people who live on what we might call the margins. Some are homeless, some are drug addicts, some are alcoholics, some are parents who have lost custody of their children, some work, and some panhandle. Steve is very upfront with the fact that he cannot solve their problems, he is not there to find them work, to give them money, or to find them a treatment program, what he is there to do is to talk to them, to listen to them, and to accompany them. Steve believes that his calling from God is to be a companion for people who are otherwise forgotten by the rest of us and by being their companion he is bringing the healing power of God to them, not in a way that is taking away the hardship in their lives, but in a way that might help them to take the first step towards ending those hardships. Often when people are in a difficult situation and are ignored, they give up because they assume that no one would even notice if they were dead. Steve’s actions bring his companion’s hope, it brings them hope that there are people in the world that care about them, it brings them hope that their lives can improve and it introduces them to the idea that God is a loving creator. It introduces them to that because Steve does not hide the fact that he is there because he believes God has called him to be. So, through him, many people get to experience what it means to be in a relationship with God, they get to experience the healing love and compassion of God through Steve’s willingness to simply talk to them. When Steve goes for his walks he goes armed with knowledge, he knows where people can get a hot meal on any day of the week, he knows where they can get a hot shower, he knows where they can go if they want to go into a recovery program. You see, even though his main purpose is to be a companion, he makes sure that knows about the things that may be useful to the people he is interacting with. Over the past few years Steve has built relationships with many people who live on the margins, he has given people the information that he knows, but most importantly he has been and continues to be a friendly presence to them, he has become a person that they know they can rely on and when they see him coming, they stop what they are doing and say hello. Because Steve answered God’s call to this particular ministry, the people Steve works with can walk a little more upright as they begin to heal from the pain of the stigmas that have been placed on them by the rest of us.

Bringing God’s love to the world is not always easy, mainly because either we get in the way or the people we are trying to reach are not receptive. There is a movement across the church to bring about racial healing and reconciliation within the United States, which is something our nation needs desperately if we are going to move forward in positive ways. When it comes to race, our nation is broken, I used to have the usual white male reaction when discussions of race occurred, I would actually think to myself “my ancestors didn’t own slaves, they weren’t even here when slavery happened and my family is from the north and the north is not racist.” Well, like many people, I was wrong! Whether anyone I know was directly involved in slavery is irrelevant, what matters is that I, as a white person, have benefited because of the color of my skin and other people have been forced to live with an ailment that has crippled them all their lives. It was my love of God that opened my eyes to how wrong I was and for the need for racial reconciliation. As a part of my training to be a deacon I had to participate in race training, and since then I have completely changed my thinking and spent a great deal of time trying to learn more. For 500 years an entire group of people have been plagued by a disease that has crippled their ability to reach their full potential as God’s children and the name of that disease is systemic racism. Systemic racism has caused deep, deep wounds for millions of people. I believe God has the power to heal these wounds, and I believe that God is working on it, one stubborn person at a time. Last weekend the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia held a two day Pilgrimage of Racial Justice that followed the Slavery Trail of Tears, at one of the stops the walkers participated in a “responsive litany that traced the long history of systemic racism in America, from slavery to the Ku Klux Klan to Jim Crow to present-day voter suppression and unequal policing of neighborhoods. After each prompt, the people responded in a loud, clear voice, ‘We remember, and we repent.’” These are powerful words and they are words that can lead to the healing of the very deep wounds, but they are only the first step in a very long process. Through the power of Christ the people of Southwestern Virginia have begun the healing process by their willingness to change the way they think about race, and the people who live on the margins in Greenfield have learned of God’s love through Steve’s willingness to share his time with them. We too can be agents of God’s love in the world and bring healing to many people, and many of us already do so. Every time a meal is delivered and every time a family picks up some food from the community center God’s healing love is being shared. A part of having an active relationship with God is seeking opportunities to share our good fortune with others, and since school starts this week, I decided to give you homework. Over the course of the week I want you to answer two questions: Have I contributed to anyone’s pain in my life?  How do I bring God’s love to the world? Once you think you have identified your answer, spend some time in prayer. Thank God for all that you have and all that you are, ask God for forgiveness for the pain you may have caused and ask for guidance as to how you can be most effective.

Set aside the distractions

“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly…”

I think these are wise words and if the rich man in Luke’s parable had heard them maybe he wouldn’t have been such an idiot. If you want to know how to NOT live like a disciple of Jesus, then follow the example of the rich man. I draw our attention to what, I believe, is the most important passage in today’s Gospel. “I will say to my soul, Soul you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry. But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.’” In this exchange the rich man is congratulating himself for all the things he has accumulated and accomplished, and God basically calls him an idiot. So how does the parable of the rich man jive with what Paul says in his letter to the Colossians?

Well, in both cases the message is, don’t get distracted by earthly things. Don’t get distract by wealth; don’t get distracted by getting your way; don’t get distracted by your desire to win; don’t get distracted by making sure everyone else is happy at the expense of yourself. It is obviously easy for me to say don’t get distracted, but it is important and because it is important, I refer us back to Paul’s letter, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” While I love this passage, I think it misleads us, it perpetuates the false idea that all things of God are somewhere else. God is not up in the sky somewhere; God is not in some mythical kingdom called heaven. God is here, God’s kingdom is here, and we are a part of it. Both Paul and Luke are telling us that we need to not be distracted by human made things, and focus on what it means to live a life after resurrection, because we have already been resurrected through our baptisms and our acceptance of Jesus as the son of God. This whole thing that we do, (waves hands around the church) is not about some distant future, it is about now. It’s about praising God for life itself and for the things that sustain us, this is the point the rich man forgot. He was so focused on congratulating himself and figuring out how to keep all that he had, that he forgot about God’s role in his life. Our faith is about being in relationship with God and one another, it is about treating people with dignity and respect because they are children of God. One of the topics that has dominated the news lately is the humanitarian crisis on our southern border. Hundreds of thousands of people have walked thousands of miles with the hope of finding a better life. They could have tried to cross the border without permission, but most of them did not do that, instead they presented themselves in accordance with both US and international law and asked for asylum. The US immigration authorities have been overwhelmed by the number of people who have asked for asylum and they are doing their best to deal with the situation, hence the camps. Are the camps perfect? Definitely not! Could the US government do better? Absolutely! Are the ICE agents evil? Of course not. Has our nation’s response to this crisis been a Christian response? Probably not, instead our nation’s response has been distracted by earthly and human made distractions such as cost, politics, and nationalism. A Christian response would focus on the commandment to love our neighbors. When we do that, when we focus on the love of neighbor, we are then setting our minds on the things that are above. Political arguments, arguments about the cost of giving every person in the camps a toothbrush and the fear that the US is somehow being invaded are all earthly based things and should be irrelevant to how we treat our brothers, sisters, and siblings from other places. If I were to die tomorrow, what good would my political views, my concern about the cost to taxpayers, and my fear of strangers do anyone? Those questions are exactly what Luke and Paul are getting at in today’s readings. If we want to experience God’s kingdom, then we must resist being like the rich man, we must set aside the distractions, focus on God, and discern the way forward.

 

Use the Good Samaritan as a GPS

The story of the Good Samaritan is probably one of the most well-known stories in the bible and in many ways has become a cliché for being helpful, but that is not at all what the story is meant to convey. This parable has a much deeper meaning that we need to unpack, it challenges us to change our way of thinking and to change how we view the world and ourselves.

As a reminder, the story Jesus told to the lawyer went like this: A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and he was mugged and left for dead. When a Priest came along, he avoided him, and when a Levite came along, he also avoided him. The next person to come along was a Samaritan, who took it upon himself to care for the man until he was healed.

To fully understand the meaning of this story I think it is important that we understand who all the characters are. First, we have the lawyer or in some translations a religious scholar, he would have been very familiar with Hebrew Scripture and law. Second, we have Jesus who needs no introduction. Third we have the priest, who is a devout follower of Judaism and a person responsible for making sacrifices on behalf of the Jewish community. The fourth, is a Levite, who would have been an assistant to the priests at the temple, they were the caretakers of the Torah and other important furnishings of the temple. The fifth character is the Samaritan, the Samaritan is a follow of Samaritanism which believes that their form of Judaism is the correct form that was maintained by the Jews who remained in Israel during the Babylonian Captivity, their primary objection to Judaism is that the location of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is not the correct location for the temple. They believe the temple should be placed at Mount Gerizim, which is about 40 miles north of Jerusalem. This seemingly minor difference was enough to keep the Samaritans and the Jews completely separated from one another. Jews saw Samaritans as being unfaithful to the Law of Moses and the feeling was mutual.

Now that we know who the players are, lets take a deeper look at what is going on in Luke’s Gospel. The Lawyer is a faithful Jew, who already knows the answer to his own question, he is simply doing his job and trying to see if Jesus is corrupting the teaches of Moses and was probably only included by Luke as a means to give the story of the Good Samaritan some context, Jesus is regularly questioned by people in positions of power, it is simply a part of being a teacher. The Priest and the Levite in the story are both faithful Jews and we should not assume that they ignored the man on the road because they are bad or uncaring people. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is a long and dangerous one, perhaps the Priest and the Levite thought it was unsafe to approach a stranger in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps they thought it might be a trick to rob them. Or perhaps because they were faithful Jews, they were afraid that if they touched someone who appeared to be dead, they would become unclean, which is a violation of the law of Moses. Both the Priest and the Levite are on the path that they believe God has set them on, they have chosen to live their lives by a certain set of rules and their avoidance of the apparent dead body might be nothing more than their attempt to remain on that path. Now the Samaritan, who believes God has called him to live his life on a different path is moved to assist the man and he does so. What Luke is doing here is showing us that the path to eternal life, the path of Jesus, is filled with choices and that the correct choice, the choice God desires, is the way of love and compassion for others. The Samaritan followed many of the same laws as the priest and the Levite, one of which is Love your neighbor as yourself, but the difference between the three of them is that the Samaritan had a wider view of who his neighbor was, for the Samaritan the stranger was his neighbor.

We cannot limit our definition of neighbor as we strive to follow the path God has laid before us. The story of the good Samaritan is not meant to reinforce the idea that we need to be nice people, it is meant to show us that we need to change our thinking. I draw your attention back to who asked Jesus the question. The lawyer does not need Jesus to tell him what the rules are, he already knows he is supposed to be a good person. What Luke is doing is showing that God, through Jesus, is calling us to change course, to follow a slightly different path. The path that the Priest and the Levite are following adheres to a strict set of rules and those rules require the exclusion of many people. The Samaritan follows a similar set of rules but seeing the need of the injured man he abandoned those rules in favor of showing compassion. Through that act the Samaritan stepped off the path that was primarily based on human understanding and onto the path that requires an intimate and loving relationship with God. Through the Samaritan God’s healing love and compassion was able to reach the man who was injured. Now this would have been shocking to the lawyer who is questioning Jesus, because his question is attempting to find out how to define who deserves his love. He knows that the law says to love your neighbor, but he wants a clear answer as to who that neighbor is, even though he already fully knows that Jewish law defines it as other Jews. Jesus, however, did not answer the question he was asked, instead he reorients their conversation away from the idea that one’s love should be limited to a certain group of people and instead shows that love seeks out neighbors who need compassion even when established boundaries or prejudices conspire against it. The parable of the good Samaritan should not be thought of as a simple, let’s be helpful story. It is a scriptural GPS, rerouting us in the only direction God desires, the way of love and compassion for everyone, no matter who they are or where they come from. If we consistently follow the path set for us by God, if we use the phrase “Love your neighbor as yourself” as our compass in all things, and when I say all things, I mean all things. We should never make a decision without checking it against our scriptural GPS to see if what we want to do is off course, and if it is, then we need to change directions.

 

Trinity Sunday

In case you didn’t know, today is Trinity Sunday, which is a day often handed to deacons and deacon interns to preach because it is one of those tricky topics to preach on. So, what is the doctrine of the trinity? Well to figure that out I started with the prayer book and discovered that the Catechism describes the Trinity as the three Persons of God, but I don’t find that all that helpful in our quest to understand it because that is merely a definition. My next stop was various commentaries on scripture and that is where I found that in Greek the word Persona, which is the origins of our word for person, means the face through which you speak, so when we refer to the three persons of God, it might be helpful to think that we are referring to the three faces through which God speaks.

The three persons of the trinity are God the father or the creator, who is omnipotent or all powerful; there is God the son or the redeemer, who walked among us as Jesus; and there is God the Holy Spirit or the sustainer, who resides within us and guides us. Church doctrine dictates that all three persons of the God head are fully separate and fully God and that all three are in fact one God. If you are thoroughly confused as to how anything can be separate while it is also not separate, you are not alone. The reason the church has landed on the doctrine of the trinity is because it is the only explanation that we have come up with that comes close to explaining the many ways we have experienced God throughout human history. We could spend our entire lives trying to understand the doctrine of the trinity and never do so and if we did do that, we would be completely missing the point of our faith, which is to be in a loving relationship with God, through which we can be faithful stewards of creation.

Rather than thinking of God as three persons, I invite you to think of God through the lens of the original Greek meaning and think about how each of God’s faces is present in our lives. God the creator is the easiest to experience because we can see it, hear it, smell it, feel it, and even taste it. From the depths of the oceans to the highest point of the Himalayas everything in nature should remind us of the awesomeness of God because only God could create things that cause such wonder, amazement, and fear all at the same time.

God the redeemer, or Jesus, is the face through which God attempted to establish a deeper connection with humanity. The entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures describes the struggle of God to connect with the people. In Exodus God speaks directly to Moses and provides explicit laws in the form of the ten commandments. With Abraham God creates a new covenant which is meant to formalize the relationship between God and the people. Later God sends prophet after prophet to warn the people that they are not leading God centered lives, but still many of us turn our backs to God. Ultimately God makes the decision to come personally in order to speak to us directly through words and actions. The life of Jesus is a road map of how to be in relationship with God. The people of the first century had the advantage of being able to directly experience Jesus as the face of God, they were able to see his actions and hear his message directly, and still they struggled. We can only experience the life of Jesus secondhand because we can only read about it and when we do read about it, we often do so in small doses and out of context, which makes it that much more difficult to understand.

God the sustainer, or the Holy Spirit, is the face through which God is always fully present to us and, to me, is the one that provides the deepest connection to God. The Hebrew scriptures speak of the Spirit of God, but in Judaism it refers more to the divine force and influence of God meaning it is the force behind the will of God, so the Spirit of God does not act as a driving force on its own. In our tradition the Holy Spirit is a constant presence among us, it is a driving force behind our interaction with both creation and God. Our sense of morality, compassion, and love is rooted in the presence of the Holy Spirit and our connection with God.

Our relationship to the Trinity is quite personal and that is the way it is meant to be. For many people God seems to be a source of comfort and the thing that they look to when they need guidance; for some people God is a thing to be feared because scripture appears to be filled with God’s wrath; and for others God simply is.  Whether or not we understand the doctrine of the trinity is irrelevant, the only thing that matters is that we acknowledge the presence of God in our lives and actively seek to accomplish the mission God has given us, namely to love God and to love our neighbors. This mission was originally handed down by God the Creator through the ten commandments; God then attempted to reinforce this message through the prophets, who were charged with pointing out to God’s people that they were straying from the plan. As this did not work, God became incarnate in Jesus and both told and showed us how to follow through with our mission. In addition, Jesus took away the one thing we consistently feared and that was the wrath of God, which ultimately resulted in death. Through his death and resurrection Jesus showed us that death is no longer on the table, so we don’t need to worry about doing the wrong thing and then being punished for it. When Jesus was baptized the Holy Spirit descended upon him, which is the basis of our belief that the Holy Spirit resides within us and assists us in carrying out our mission of Love. As humans we are capable of love, however when left to our own devices we will choose self-interests over our neighbor most of the time. We could argue that, like God, we have multiple faces. We have the faces we use when we are with our family and friends; we have the faces we use in public; we have the faces we use at school, at work, and at church. How we interact with people reflects our relationship with God. When we are short with people; when we ask how people are and then walk away before they have a chance to respond; when we focus on how others actions affect us and not wonder why they may be acting the way they are; when we insist that our needs are more important than the needs of others, then we are not reflecting the love of God which the Holy Spirit is continually urging us to share.

A part of being in relationship with God is thanking God the creator for everything they have provided; studying scripture, with the Holy Spirit as our guide, so that we can understand the teachings of Jesus; and then, also with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, implementing what we learn from our study of scripture in our lives. Nowhere in scripture does it say greet your neighbor and then ignore their response; nowhere does it say be short with people; nowhere does it say put your own needs ahead others; nowhere does it say blame others for how we are feeling. God projects nothing but love, and by God’s grace we can do the same; but first we must be willing to say no to anger, say no to jealousy, say no to greed, say no to fear; and say no to our egos. God is always present to us, God is always speaking to us, God is always guiding us, but how often are we present to God? How often do we speak to God? How often to we allow God to guide us? God’s love and guidance is not limited to Sunday, Sunday is just the day we choose to gather for fellowship. God is always ready and willing to love and guide us, we just need to be ready and willing to accept it and stop thinking that we need to be in control. My challenge to all of us this week is let go. When we feel ourselves getting stressed or angry or jealous, when we feel the need to be in control, take a breath, pray for God to give you the grace to move passed your emotions and see what happens.

Good Friday

The journey was at an end. Jesus was quickly thrown backward with His shoulders against the wood. The soldier felt for the depression at the front of the wrist; he drove a heavy, square, wrought-iron nail through the wrist and deep into the wood. Quickly, he moved to the other side and repeated the action, being careful not to pull the arms too tightly. The title ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ was nailed into place, and the crossbar lifted into position. The left foot was pressed backward against the right foot. With both feet extended, tows down, a nail was driven through the arch of each, leaving the knees moderately flexed. The victim was now crucified.

I am at a loss to think of a more horrible way to die, nor can I fathom willingly choosing to do so and I assume that I am not alone in that sentiment. However, no matter how horrible it was, Jesus’s death alone has no meaning. People die in horrible ways all the time, both 2000 years ago and today and most of the time our feelings of horror last no longer than it takes us to scroll to the next story or move on to the next task, and that is how most people treat Good Friday.  It is treated as just another day, the day that marks the death of Jesus, something to make note of in passing, but nothing more. In an attempt to get more people to pay attention, we could try make the argument that what makes Jesus death special is that he willingly chose to die out of obedience to God, but again thousands of people in human history have chosen to go to their death for many reasons and we don’t pay any more attention to their deaths than we do anyone else’s. So, if the death Jesus isn’t made significant or even special by the fact that he chose death, why are we here? Why do we choose to gather to remember this event, year after year?

The short response to these questions is that we gather to remember the death of Jesus because we know it is important enough for us to give time and energy to it, even though we may not be able to explain why. The slightly longer answer draws our eyes to Easter. The reason the death of Jesus is so important is because he did not remain dead. It is in Jesus’s resurrection, not in his death, that we find hope for the future. But if that is the case, why not just skip to Easter, like most people do? Most people treat Good Friday as just another day and then put on their Sunday best for Easter; but attempting to celebrate Easter without Good Friday is like trying to bake bread without yeast. The bread will cook, it might even resemble bread, but it will not be the real deal.

Good Friday is not only about remembering Christ’s death, it is about preparing ourselves for Easter, it is also about taking count of the things that separate us from God, as well as the things that cause us to suffer. Once we have taken count, then we must make the conscious decision to allow those things to die because it is in letting those things die that we can fully experience the joy of an open and loving relationship with God, which we gain through the resurrection of Jesus. The death of Jesus has meaning because of the good that comes out of it. With his resurrection Jesus proves that with God even death can be defeated. But yet, with our own relationship with God we expect the life-giving Joy of Easter without the death. If we want to have a true relationship with God, then we must learn to let go of the things that separate us.

Last night the altar was stripped of all its trappings to remind us that God is not found in the fair linens, in the candlesticks, or even the altar cross. God is not found in any man-made thing; God is not found in our anxiety, in our fear, in our suffering or in any other idol we create, whether it is physical or emotional. God is found in every one of us and is waiting for us to die to the idols in our lives and to turn ourselves over to the power of the Holy Spirit, so that we can fully know God’s love and be the creatures of Love and compassion we were created to be. God gave us the gift of free will and because of that gift God will not take away our suffering because God did not cause our suffering, God gave us the ability to choose because love without choice is not love and in return for that gift we choose to replace God with idols. It is our actions and our words that cause all of creation to suffer and it is our actions and our words that separate us from God. Even though we have rejected God’s love, time and time again, God has not given up, instead God came among us to show us the path back. The story of Jesus’s death and resurrection is a package deal and our lives need to be the same. Jesus had faith that if he put his trust in God, no harm would come to him and he was right. We have the same choice to make, do we cling to the world the way it is, or do we trust God to lead us to a better life? If we truly want to know God and let God into our lives then we must let go of the things that interfere with our relationship with God, we must let go of our pain, of our suffering, of our anxiety, of our love of things, of our obsessions, of our need to be in control and let them die with Jesus on the cross, so that we too can experience the resurrection in all its glory. Amen

Barriers are meant to be crossed

All around us there are invisible barriers separating us from “the other”. Some of these barriers have physical properties such as fences, hedges or even walls but most of them go unseen and are rarely crossed. I think that there are two reasons we don’t cross these barriers, the first is because we are unaware that we can and the second is because when we are aware we are afraid to do so.

Today’s gospel is about these very barriers of separation, it is about the dividing line between fear and faith. The Sea of Galilee is the barrier between the predominantly Jewish culture on the Western side and the predominantly Roman culture on the eastern side. We heard that when Jesus finished teaching for the day he decided to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, presumably because that is where he planned to teach the next day. The communities on the other side are predominantly Roman in culture because the emperor had ordered settlements to be created there to Romanize the area, so this is an instance where Jesus is venturing into somewhat unfamiliar territory as he has spent his life in predominantly Jewish communities, where Roman culture was present, but not dominant. So here we have a Jewish man spreading a new message to the Jewish people and who is already annoying his own people’s leadership, willing to go into unfamiliar territory to spread that same message to a group of people who don’t even believe in the same God.

Most barriers worth crossing are not easy to cross, I think that Jesus knew this but it certainly did not stop him which is demonstrated by his willingness to go into Roman dominated areas to teach both the Jewish and non-Jewish populations. I think that sometimes the barriers we want to cross are scarier than what is on the other side, which is also demonstrated by today’s Gospel when Jesus and the disciples are caught in the storm. The storm, which occurs in the middle of the voyage causes the disciples to freak out and think that they are going to die. Jesus not only stops the storm but once again chides them for their lack of faith and allowing fear to control them. The fact that their fear takes hold in the middle of the sea is significant because at that point they are in the middle of the barrier between the known and the unknown, which is typically the scariest point. The disciples are half way through their journey having left behind a safe and friendly group of believers and are on their way to a new location that may or may not welcome them. They trust Jesus and happily followed him onto the boat, but the second things got rough they abandoned their faith and allowed fear to take over.

How often do we allow our fear of the unknown to drive our decisions as opposed to our faith? How often to we claim to believe in God, to love God, but when faced with a new barrier in our lives, choose the familiar. When I was a child I missed out on many things because I was afraid. My grandfather used to set off fireworks on the Fourth of July, But I never saw them because I would be in the house hiding. When I visited Stone Mountain in Georgia, I never made it to the top because I was afraid of the Gondola. When I visit the ocean, I am still afraid to venture beyond my knees because I am afraid of what might be lurking there. You could argue that these are superficial barriers and have nothing to do with faith and you might be right, however if we can’t cross the superficial barriers and overcome our own self-inflicted fears then how can we expect that we will be able to cross the barriers we encounter in our ministries? Jesus gave us the answer in today’s Gospel. We need to trust that God will not lead us to danger and that God will not push us up to a barrier that we are not equipped to cross. When I was a child I did not understand this, so my fear and anxiety got the better of me, but now that I do understand I am willing to take chances, which are no less scary to me, but I know that I have to take the chance. Sometimes the barriers other people encounter may not seem like barriers to us, but what we think doesn’t matter, our only job is to love them where they are and recognize that there are people who have barriers in front of them that they may not be able or ready to cross. Those situations are our opportunity to show them the love of God by meeting them where they are and with Gods help guide them across the line and once they do take that step, we need to be there with open arms to greet them.

There is a line that both clergy and lay preachers face when preparing their homilies and that is do we bring up controversial topics. I would argue that the answer is yes because it is our job to get all of us to think about the relationship between those hard topics and our faith. The current border crisis we are experiencing on our southern border is one of those topics. The people who are currently arriving at the border and asking for Asylum, as well as the people who are crossing the border without permission are doing nothing more than stepping out in faith that if they cross the line into the United States that they may have a chance at a safer and happier life. We have a duty as Christians to love them, which does not mean that we as a nation shouldn’t hold them accountable for breaking our laws, but it does mean that we must treat them with the dignity and love that all of God’s creation deserves.

When we are faced with a situation that is foreign to us and we feel the fear rising we need to ask ourselves some simple questions. First, would crossing this barrier mean that I am loving my neighbor? Second, would crossing this barrier further God’s vision for creation? Third, am I afraid because this looks different than my usual comfort zone? If crossing a barrier means you will be loving a neighbor, if it means you are furthering God’s vision for creation and if your fear is simply based on what might be on the other side, then cross it and don’t look back because God would not lead you to a barrier you aren’t prepared to cross. Amen

Evangelism means being present.

To hear an audio recording of this sermon please click here.

I have noticed over the years that when I look at passages of scripture I tend to look for confirmation of what I already know about God. When I was growing up the only thing I remember learning was that God loves me so when I look at a passage of scripture, either from the New Testament or from the Hebrew scriptures, I look for confirmation of that fact.  There are of course many issues with that, one being that it limits God and oversimplifies all that God is and all that God represents. It places God in a tiny, tiny box labeled “For Emergency use only” and implies that we only need to pay attention to God when we are feeling hurt or disappointed. Additionally, by only looking for confirmation of God’s love in scripture we can very easily ignore anything that sounds contrary to what we know, for example today we heard that Eli’s family was going to be punished because of the actions of his sons; we heard about the sin of fornication; and we heard Nathanael make a fairly elitist and possibly racist and/or bigoted comment when he said “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”. These themes and ideas are not the ones that we put in our little box because they don’t jive with our simplified view of God; but by doing that we are denying ourselves the fullness of God, we are denying the reasons we need to rely on God for everything in our lives.

The message to Samuel that Eli’s sons have caused the punishment of Eli’s house is certainly contrary to the God we know in the Gospels; which is why we would not put that message in our little box. However, it is important to remember that it is humans that wrote these words, not God, and that the purpose of writing down these words is to capture the complexity of the relationship between God and humanity. So the author of the 1st book of Samuel is doing two things with this particular passage, first they are reminding us that our thoughts and actions should be focused on God, otherwise we will find ourselves in bad situations, which is what is happening to Eli’s family. His family’s downfall has nothing to do with God, it has to do with the fact that Eli’s sons ignore gods law. Secondly, the author is foreshadowing what we will hear in the rest of the book of Samuel. Samuel was a prophet in the time of the kings and much of what he has to say about society at the time settles on the idea that the kings are greedy, self-centered, power hungry people who have little desire to actually be in relationship with God and they are leading their people down the same path. We tend to focus on Samuel in this story because he answers God’s call, but his call story would not be as powerful without the story of Eli’s family attached to it because it is through that part of the story that we are reminded that even when we spend our lives dedicated to God’s service, as Eli has, we can still fall short; but God will not punish us, the only punishment we will receive is our own guilt.

In his 1st letter to the Corinthians Paul chastises the people for their sin. He is reminding them that as a part of the body of Christ, meaning the church, their behavior reflects on and affects the entire church. The discussions of prostitution and fornication should be seen as a metaphor for sin in general. Sin is what separates us from God, in this particular passage Paul is warning us that if one part of the church sins that can affect the rest of the community, so it is important to remember that God is with you and that if you rely on God you can avoid sin.

John is telling us that Nathanael does not think very highly of people of Nazareth, but by the end he is a believer. Why might John have Nathanael say such a thing? Well we typically focus on Philip in this story because he seems to have no doubt about who Jesus and that is what we aspire to. So once again this is an attempt to reinforce the main message of the passage, which is that Jesus is the Messiah, by juxtaposing the ideal, which is complete faith, next to someone who is a poster child for what humanity is. If Nathanael simply believed without any kind of doubt then his belief would be meaningless. This is a message to the reader that even the most fervent of Jesus’s followers had doubts; doubt is not sin, unless you let your doubt take you away from God.

So, what does this have to do with anything, well my hope is that you can see that it is through the complexity of scripture that we can truly begin to understand our role in God’s creation. We are called just like Samuel was; we can serve God and still fall short, just like Eli; which is why Eli’s story is important. We need to rely on the Holy Spirit, because if we do we not, will fall into egregious sin, which is what Paul was stressing to the church at Corinth. We can have doubts, even speak ill of people and still have faith, just like Nathanael did, the key is that in the end we return to God.

There is a group of people, a small group, known as Deacons, who purposely put themselves in the position to be between the Eli’s and the Samuels; between the Paul’s of the world and the people represented by the Corinthians; between the Nathanaels and Philips. They purposely place themselves in the middle of it all. They aspire to bridge the gap in understanding between what the church truly teaches, which is not just that God loves us, and how that translates to the world in which we live; but they also bring what they learn from the world back to the church to say hey, you see that person over there or that group over there, what you’re saying or better yet, what you’re doing, doesn’t include them; so get your act together and fix it. The message they bring to the world is the best kind of evangelism that can happen, presence. Here’s the thing with that though, deacons can only do so much, which is why we are all called to action through our baptism. We are all called to accept the call of God, just like Samuel and Nathanael did, but we can’t forget that sometimes we might be like Eli’s sons or like some of the people in Corinth. What truly matters is did we try, so we are going to practice holy evangelism right now because I want you to see how easy it is. Turn to the person next to you and ask how they are. and then notice their response.

Was that hard? That’s evangelism! Here’s the thing though, doing this at church is easy, but can you do this with someone you don’t know? This week’s homework is to do just that. Ask a complete stranger or at least someone you know, but don’t know well, how they are and then listen. Ask the cashier at the grocery store how they are? Ask the bank clerk, ask your mail carrier, ask the person pumping gas next to you, ask a coworker who tends to stick to themselves and then see what happens. Pay attention their eyes, you will be able to gauge their reaction to your question, pay attention to how you feel afterwards and then at least think about doing it again.