Sermon: First Sunday in Lent (A)/March 5, 2017/Randall Hehr
Today is the First Sunday in Lent, and this sermon is about a journey in the wilderness. St. Hilary, a fourth century bishop, once wrote: “Everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God.” Kathleen Norris quotes Hilary when describing the brutal, barren landscape of South Dakota where she and her husband moved, leaving behind their life in New York City. She says none of her friends understood the move. As a writer and artist, how could she leave the stimulating environment of the great city? How could she leave the center of the universe for a place where the dust storms rage in the heat of the summer, and the winter blizzards keep you isolated for days upon end? Like Jacob’s angel, she writes, “the region requires that you wrestle with it before it bestows a blessing.” And clearly she received that blessing after moving there to occupy the house her grandparents built. In fact, she says the vast emptiness of the Great Plains formed her spiritually. She embraced both the solitude and the community, and she describes how the deprivations of South Dakota life helped her see small gifts that she would never have been able to perceive in her life back in the city. In her book, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, she writes, “Conversion means starting with who we are, not who we wish we were.”
Another author who writes passionately about the wilderness is Joan Chittister. She describes a wilderness as a life experience that is thrust upon you, one you do not choose. She writes about what happens when the bottom drops out of life, when all your aspirations go down the drain, and you are left with nothing but a feeling of emptiness and desolation. She, too, references Jacob wrestling with the angel of God through the night, being wounded and blessed at the same time. She, too, was in the midst of an important journey in life when she entered the wilderness. As a sister in the Benedictine order, she enrolled in the Iowa State University master of fine arts program in creative writing. Suddenly, without explanation, the superior of the order sent word that Joan was to leave the university and report to their summer camp as a cook. In her book, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, Joan describes her anger, loss of purpose, and feelings of failure. But strikingly, like Kathleen Norris, she writes about conversion, which she says is, “The kind of change that shocks us into new beginnings…forces us down unwanted paths…the call to think differently about who God is and who we are.”
What are the wilderness experiences of life? When we have lost meaningful work or vocation. When we face a serious illness or disability, or a life-changing family circumstance. When we struggle after the death of a family member. It is any time in life when the familiar pathways are gone, and we find ourselves wandering in unknown territory. It is also a time when God can work in our lives, transforming us. It is also a time when God can give us the capacity to embrace the unknown instead of clinging to the past. The wilderness experience is often about letting go.
The wilderness is very much a part of scripture. Noah builds the ark and sails off with a sample of creation into the unknown, waiting for a sign from God that marks the beginning of a new world. Jonah travels in the belly of the whale after refusing to carry out God’s work. The children of Israel wander in the wilderness after leaving slavery in Egypt. Long before they reach the promised land, they are crying, “How long will this last?” That is a question we might ask in the middle of the wilderness? “How long will I go on feeling the struggle, fear and confusion?” The biblical answer, taken from several of the references I have given, is perhaps as short as forty days, or as long as forty years. That means it feels like a long time.
All of these biblical stories shape the background to Jesus’ journey in the wilderness. Matthew’s gospel tells us that he was in the wilderness forty days and forty nights. Notice how Matthew’s gospel links his experience in the wilderness with his baptism by John. The same Spirit that descends upon him in the Jordan leads him into the wilderness. Immediately following the wilderness, Jesus begins his public ministry in Galilee, proclaiming the Good News. It is the Spirit of God that led him in all three experiences.
Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus was tempted during his wilderness experience. He was exhausted, hungry and vulnerable, yet he kept his trust in God. He did not put God to the test. He did not turn to idols. The great temptation for us is to be pulled off course in the wilderness, to try to be someone or something that we are not, and to fail to stay true to the clear identity we have as a gift from God. Think how many people turn to alcohol or other addictions during wilderness times of life. Think how easy it is to turn to idols.
Today I want to remind you that you are never alone in the wilderness. God is with you. Often when I meet with people going through the wilderness, I encourage them to draw strong, resourceful people closer to them. I think of these spiritual friends as “anchors.” They are like sponsors in Alcoholics Anonymous. They are ready to receive a phone call at any time.
A journey through the wilderness is part of life. Everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God. It is an opportunity for God to transform us. You are not alone in the wilderness. God is with you, and there are resources to help you along the way.
The Sunday Lenten Series, Deliver Us from Evil, begins today, Sun, March 5, Classroom 9/10, 11:30 a.m. This Sunday morning Christian Formation discussion group will meet the following dates. All are welcome.
March 5: Evil in the Hebrew Scriptures: Rabbi Arthur Baseman
March 12: Evil and Satan in the New Testament: The Rev Randy Hehr
March 19: Sin and Evil: The Rev.Ev Walk
March 26: Evil in Popular American Culture: The Rev Randy Hehr
April 2: God and Evil: The Rev. Kathleen Moore
Wednesday Evening Lenten Services will be celebrated on Wednesdays, March 8, 15, 22, 29 and April 5 at 6:30 p.m. in the church. This year we will explore Scriptures and Hymns for Peace. Fr. Randy Hehr will be the Celebrant at the Eucharist, and we will share in brief discussions in place of the Homily.
Sermon/The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (A)/February 5, 2017/The Rev. Randall Hehr
Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the
liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us
in your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with
you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The Book of Common Prayer, p. 216 (The Episcopal Church)
The family met to plan the funeral service for their mother. It was a difficult process, but the fact that she had filled out the church forms in advance of her death made it easier for her adult children to find their way. Now they faced emptying her house, making decisions about all her belongings and meeting with the lawyer. They faced all the steps that families must engage at the time of the death of a loved one. Conflict emerged between them as they tried to sort through her possessions. Some family members stopped talking to others. By the time of the funeral, an outright battle was being waged. One daughter talked with me trying to make sense of what was happening. She asked, “Does this happen in other families? Right when we need to pull together, we find everything in the world to fight about?” As I tried to help her work through her feelings, I thought of the words of a wise priest named Herbert O’Driscoll, who described times like these when anxiety can go sky high. He wrote, “In any situation of limited time and real threat, we all tend to reveal our true selves.” (Prayers for the Breaking of Bread, p. 36) In other words, we are human beings, subject to anxiety, fear, loss, pain and anger. Often when we experience crisis, we succumb to the powerful emotions swirling within us. We lash out at each other and blame each other.
The Collect for today (see text above) speaks both about bondage to sin and abundant life. It is important for us to hold these two side by side. In the midst of crisis, we may be tempted to pull apart, to attack each other and to be divided. But it is precisely at times like this that we can raise our eyes to behold our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He came to bring us the liberty – the freedom – of abundant life.
Jesus speaks about this in the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John. “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) It is important to see that our Lord is sharing these words in the midst of his own crisis. Immediately after saying these words, he talks about the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. And in Chapter eleven, the Gospel describes Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead, the single act that stirs the anger and ire of the Jewish authorities to arrest him. Jesus speaks about bringing us abundant life as the darkness closes in and the forces of the world seek to end his life. Jesus shares his vision for abundant life as he approaches persecution, imprisonment and death.
He is giving himself for us. That is the way of the cross. He shows us how to live in the midst of turmoil and trial, giving ourselves for other’s sake. This is the way we discover abundant life.
In the midst of a chaotic, divided world today, let us remember to pray: “O Lord, in the trying times in which we live, set us free from all kinds of bondage within us. Help us to claim the pathway you show us. Help us give of ourselves for others’ sake. Show us the pathway to the liberty of abundant life.”
This week as I reflected on the liberty of abundant life, I was captivated by the words from the Gospel according to Matthew: “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.” Of course we see Jesus as the salt that infused the culture with love and healing. We see Jesus as the light of the world, shining brightly in dark times. But he says so clearly, too: YOU are the salt of the earth. YOU are the light of the world.
Salt had great value in the ancient world. It had many uses in the household, to flavor and to preserve foods. My research led me to discover it was also valuable as a fertilizer, especially in arid climates where it helped the soil to retain moisture. We are salt when we are effective in the world. We are salt when we change the bitterness around us. And we are light when we listen to others. Instead of reacting, attacking, or condemning, we stop and we listen. We allow light to shine by honoring others, especially those who are different from ourselves.
Friday I returned to a place in the wider Clearwater community that has great personal meaning to me. One year ago we began a dialogue with the Muslim community and the good people of the Islamic Society of Pinellas County. On Friday at noon, I was with them at the mosque for prayers. I was deeply moved as my brothers and sisters of the Islamic faith embraced me and welcomed me. On this occasion, by dear friend Sheikh Saad, Imam of the mosque, preached about supplication. Supplication is a humble prayer to God. Sheikh Saad said that if a follower of God has one ounce of arrogance, his supplication is empty. Sheikh Saad spoke about Abraham, Moses, Noah, Jonah and Jesus who show us how to live a life of supplication. And he spoke poignantly to his congregation about the times in which we live. He spoke about the potential for hostility and bitterness, prejudice and hatred. He invited his congregation to be patient in these trying times and to live with forgiveness. As I embraced our Islamic friends, I told them that we, their Christian brothers and sisters, stand with them in a broken world. Together, we share our witness of the power of One God, the God of peace and love.
As I left the mosque, I thought about the division and hatred, arrogance and prejudice we witness in the world today. I thought of being salt and light. I remembered the writing of Scott Peck in his book, A World Waiting to be Born: Civility Rediscovered. I came home and found the book, and turned to a section where he writes about disease. (p. 10) He says that health is not so much the absence of disease as it is the presence of an optimal healing process. He is writing about the immune system and the body’s capacity to send healthy cells. These cells scan for the presence of malignant cells, locate them and destroy them before they form a tumor. I thought of all of us, children of God, being salt and light and agents of healing in the world today.
We live in trying times. In the midst of division, we are the salt of the earth, bringing healing and hope to a broken world. We are the light of the world, listening carefully and treating others with respect and dignity. Set us free, O Lord, from the bondage of our sins. Set us free from hatred and prejudice, that we may know and share the liberty of that abundant life which we find in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Sermon/4th Sunday after the Epiphany (A)/January 29, 2017/Martha Goodwill
Dear Lord, Rescue your church from the promises of this world’s powers and form us as the community of the beatitudes that we may become your faithful servants in the world. Amen.
Because I found the readings for today so helpful and appropriate for all that is swirling around us politically right now, I started to begin this sermon with “isn’t it amazing how God always gives us just what we need, right when we need it?” But, then I very intentionally started again to read Morning Prayer every day (I had fallen out of the habit during the holidays) and what do you know, every reading (every single reading) was so helpful and appropriate for all that is swirling around us politically right now! Hmmm, I’m sensing a theme here.
I think God realizes that we are exactly who God created: flawed people with free will, who put ourselves before others and even before God. So, God gave us what we needed; God gave us prophets like Micah; this is what Micah said:
“But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously— take God seriously.” This is from The Message translation of the Bible.
And, God also gave us Paul. And it sounds like to me that nearly a thousand years later, Paul is again reminding us that we are the ones who God called and here is how God wants us to live:
“Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of “the brightest and the best” among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses…? That makes it quite clear that … Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ.” Again, from The Message.
And for our time now, God has given us our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. Now last weekend, there were many Episcopalians who were upset about the National Cathedral hosting the Inaugural Prayer Service. Here is a part of Bishop Curry’s words on the subject:
“Real prayer is both contemplative and active. It involves a contemplative conversation with and listening to God, and an active following of the way of Jesus, serving and witnessing in the world in his Name. For those who follow the way of Jesus, the active side of our life of prayer seeks to live out and help our society live out what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” So we work for a good and just, humane and loving society. We participate as followers of Jesus in the life of our government and society, caring for each other and others, and working for policies and laws that reflect the values and teachings of Jesus to “love your neighbor,” to “do unto others as you who have them do unto you,” to fashion a civic order that reflects the goodness, the justice, the compassion that we see in the face of Jesus, that we know to reflect the very heart and dream of God for all of God’s children and God’s creation.”
Real prayer is both contemplative and active.
Many of the people who peacefully marched in the Women’s marches throughout the world were acting on their prayers. There were many Episcopalians marching. Several of the marchers held signs that read, “I will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” Do you recognize the words? They are from our baptismal covenant, found on pg. 305 of the Prayer Book.
And, something many of you might not know about, but also happened this month was the Martin Luther King, Jr. parade in St. Petersburg. This is one of the largest King Day parades in the country. In addition to the city leaders and bands, there were a few religious groups marching too. Several of the black churches were there but there were also some old white hippies, who were Quaker and Jewish. They marched to throw beads and candy just like everybody else, but they also held up signs reflecting their active prayers for equality and justice for all of God’s people.
Now lastly today, Jesus gives us the Beatitudes. I encourage you to read The Message translation of these verses – we all know these words, but sometimes when the words are said differently, they are renewed in us. Here is The Message translation of “blessed are the peacemakers”:
“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.”
Again, reminding us that we are the ones who God called and here is how God wants us to live.
Okay, so God has given us prophets and apostles, even Jesus – God’s own son, to show us who we are and what God expects of us. But so what? Where does all this get us in this time of polarization? What is our role, the church’s role, in the world at this time?
For the Community Development class I am taking as part of the School for Ministry, we are reading a book called, Community, The Structure of Belonging. Honestly, so far it’s pretty theoretical, giving methods on how to organize communities in order to achieve a goal. As Deacons, our take on the book is how to organize our churches to do the work that is needed in the world. The one piece of the book that has really resonated with me is about our stories. Each of us has our own story, the story of our life, our own version of the story of our life. The author says all of our stories are fiction, alternative facts! All of our own personal stories are just there to perpetuate our own version of the past and that causes our future to be pretty much the same as our past, with only small positive advances. And this applies to a society’s stories as well. He goes on to say that “the stories that are useful and fulfilling are the ones that are metaphors, signposts, parables and inspiration for the fullest expression of our humanity.” Well hello!!! That sounds like the Bible to me!
So the stories of the modern age are fiction and only serve to distract us from whom we are and from what God expects of us. These times are like many times before and like many times that will come. Our calling is to rely on God. So again, what is the church’s role in the world at this time? It is the same as it has always been and will continue to be. If you would, please grab a Prayer Book and turn with me to page 855. I hope you will answer these questions with me:
- What is the mission of the Church?
A. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
- How does the Church pursue its mission?
A. The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.
- Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
A. The church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.
It’s amazing what the Prayer Book has in it.
So, we all have our stories and the world has its stories, but time and time again we are called – we Christians, we Episcopalians, we the church, you and me – we are called to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” We are called to be reconciliation in the world. And we believe we can do this because we believe that God always gives us just what we need, right when we need it.
O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.