Here is a little glimpse into the history of St. Matthew, the saint whose feast we keep today. In the liturgical calendar, the Feast of St. Matthew is celebrated every September 21st, to honor St. Matthew and his dual roles as an Evangelist and an Apostle. The title of evangelist comes from his assumed authorship of the Gospel of Matthew, the first book in the New Testament, although scholars have cast significant doubt that he was the actual writer himself. He is also among the lists of apostles found in each one of the four books of the Gospel. The story we heard today about his calling by Jesus to be an apostle is a story that is mirrored in Luke and Mark, although he is only called by the name Matthew in today’s reading from the Gospel of the same name. His vocation was as a tax collector, one of those jobs that is certainly not popular today, but was seen as downright scandalous in the days of Roman occupation, particularly if the tax collector happened to be Jewish. It was a position that Jews viewed as disloyal at best, and significantly corrupt and immoral at its worst. So it might not be clear why we have a feast day to honor one of the most famous tax collectors and not-necessarily-authors-of-a-gospel of all time! Now, I have never been a tax collector…I wouldn’t know how to even begin doing the math necessary for a job like that. But I did spend the majority of my vocational career as a school principal. When I would answer the “what do you do for a living” question with “I’m a school principal,” it would inevitably prompt a story in return. That story might be a negative one, about their experience with their principal if they were a student who was often in trouble; or they might have shared an story full of emotions about their own child’s experience with a principal at their school. More often than not, the story was not about how much everyone loves school principals, especially if they have ever answered the phone and heard the principal’s voice on the other end of the call! While nowhere near the vilification of the role of a tax collector, and to be fair, most of my interactions with parents, children, and teachers were overwhelmingly loving and positive, I do have some sympathy for Matthew and his role in society. But this reading is not really about Matthew and what he says. In fact, you may have noticed that Matthew never even speaks at all in today’s pericope. He simply gets up, and follows Jesus when Jesus says the words, “Follow me.” And the sinners in this story….I wonder who the sinners really are? The Pharisees are sure they know….those tax collectors and other ruffians are sinners for sure. But Jesus’ message of mercy, and calling of those who are sinners, rather than those who are righteous, paint another picture entirely. It is said that Matthew followed Jesus, leaving behind his vocation as a tax collector but bringing with him a pen, bringing with him the very best of himself and turning his back on the parts that are not needed in a relationship with Christ. Each of us has gifts and talents that were instilled in us and that we have either nurtured ourselves or been led to explore and practice. Now, what can we do with those gifts to serve God in God’s kingdom? Rather than spending time looking around in judgment as the Pharisees did, we are called to follow Christ. There is no room for parsing out who we deem deserves to be called and who does not. There is no need for classifying others as outsider Christians, or looking toward some who are following Jesus with disdain as if they don’t deserve such to have such an honor. Instead, there is space at the dinner table with Jesus for each and every one of us. We only need to step out in faith as Matthew did and join in the feast. I leave you with the words from the Motto of The Daughters of the King, a religious order of women who devote themselves to prayer, service, and evangelism. In hearing it today, may it honor the life of St. Matthew and all of us who yearn to follow Jesus: For His Sake… I am but one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. What I can do, I ought to do. What I ought to do, by the grace of God I will do. Lord, what will you have me do?
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
I don’t like surprises very much – that probably speaks to my deep desire to control my environment and have things make sense as they happen. But there isn’t a whole lot about the Easter story that makes sense from the human perspective.
Jesus was killed. Murdered. Innocent of any crime and yet still sentenced to a very cruel and violent death. By us. Because you know you would have demanded his death right along with the crowd that day; I know I would have been swept up in the moment and in the energy of the masses and would have joined in the shouting of condemnation. I also would have regretted it once the dust settled and darkness covered the land. If I was a close follower of Jesus, then I may have gone and sat at the tomb to mourn as well and would have stood in disbelief to find Jesus gone on Sunday morning, my mouth standing open in that awkward, non-understanding way that I stand when I am utterly perplexed. I would have been a complete mess of emotions from Friday through Sunday and most likely even beyond into Monday.
I have the benefit of thousands of years of Easters. Being raised in faith, Easter has always been a big deal in our family – not the spiral ham and chocolate bunny big deal, but the glorious resurrection of our Lord big deal. Although I wasn’t in the crowd to yell, “Crucify Hiim!!!!” that fateful day and then mourn my mistakes and his death, the emotions I experience from the end of Maundy Thursday to the beauty and splendor of the Halleluiahs on Easter Day are just as varied. Friday feels dark and hopeless; Sunday feels like a fresh start and completely full of joy and wonder at the miracle.
Mary, Peter, the other disciple, Mary Magdelene – all experienced first hand the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. But sometimes – and most certainly THIS time – the news seems just TOO good. How can this be? Where does the body of their Jesus go? How can he appear to Mary and she doesn’t even recognize him until he calls her name? Our human brain just can’t comprehend the incomprehensible without time and thinking it through – but this is really good news and we want to believe it, right?
Today is that day. Today we choose to be Resurrection People – covered in grace and mercy for no other reason than unrelenting love. God’s love. I don’t believe that God condemns people to death – not my God. That means that Jesus died because God knew we would do that to him. And he loves us enough to do something beyond amazing – Jesus was raised from the dead to prove that the good news is really an understatement – it is Super, Awesome, Fantastic, Unbelievable News!!!! Jesus Christ is Risen Today – Halleluiah! This is more than we could have every dreamed, so let’s keep our faith focused, our practices loyal, our conversations filled with love and our words and our works spent on furthering God’s kingdom. It’s the least we can do when in the face of this REALLY Good News!
We are Resurrection People!
Risen Lord, be known to us as we work, watch, pray and love. We believe that you were risen from the dead to save us from ourselves. We give you thanks for the gift of life and the end of death. We worship you and we adore you. AMEN.
One of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray Jesus to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, `The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.'” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.
When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written,
`I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’
But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples.
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This fellow said, `I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.'” The high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you,
From now on you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of Power
and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?” They answered, “He deserves death.” Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?”
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.” When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment the cock crowed. Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.
When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”
Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.
Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”
So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”
Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, `I am God’s Son.'” The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.
From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!
Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.
The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, `After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, `He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.
I love to cheer people on – at sporting events, spelling bees, first steps, acceptance letters, job promotions, reading skills, musical performances – you name it. Although I was never an actual cheerleader, I was cheering right along in high school without the cute outfits but with my own color coordinated set of pom poms. Waving my arms, clapping my hands and yelling words of encouragement help make me feel like I am influencing the outcome and part of the action – whether it makes any difference at all is mostly irrelevant to me! I get energized from the experience of cheering and gain a sense of belonging that would be impossible for me otherwise.
Today is Palm Sunday in the liturgical life of the church. On this day, Jesus went into Jerusalem on a donkey, the beginning of the last week of his life on earth. The crowds gathered, having heard about this Messiah for the past few years as he traveled around teaching and basically changing the way that people understood their relationship with God and one another. He was a lightning rod for sure, and you can believe that when word got out that he was headed right into town, people wanted to see for themselves. Some probably jeered at him as he passed right by them, but Mark’s Gospel quotes the cheering crowd as saying:
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
But like any good spectators, they changed their words of praise and encouragement quickly as the crowd made a dramatic shift when Pilate gives the people of Jerusalem the chance to choose whom to release. Gone are the “blessed” shouts, replaced with the “crucify him” screams in unity. This happens most obviously to us today as we see the stars that we ourselves have placed on pedestals fall from grace in their acts of humanity. We quickly shift from chatting about their accolades to wanting to punish them for the very things that our friends, neighbors and even ourselves (GASP!!!) do every single day.
Here’s the thing though – Jesus didn’t commit a sin that changed the crowd’s minds about him. He didn’t do anything wrong, but rather did everything right. And doing the right thing can get you in some big trouble when those around are hellbent on the wrong thing, or just threatened by the presence of light illuminating their weaknesses and casting doubts on the ways that we have always acted and believed. Standing alone in his beliefs that were planted in the foundation of love rather than rules left Jesus on the roller coaster of our reactions from waving our palms to persecuting him for, well, nothing really.
My favorite definition of leadership is doing the right thing when no one is looking. But that is much easier than always doing the right thing no matter who is actually present. Jesus always did that and look what that got him, leaving the rest of us sinful creatures to fear the judgment of our peers, to worry about what others think of us, to want to be part of the crowd rather than standing alone in our beliefs. But being a Christian in the world means that we are called to do exactly that – stand out in love, compassion, forgiveness, acceptance. We are not to allow the “crowd mentality” to push us away from our core beliefs. Jesus didn’t die to make it easier for us to live – he died to give us eternal life. So in our earthly life, we are called to transform the world, which will sometimes have folks cheering us on and most definitely will lead to some jeers and alone feelings as we jump off the bandwagon when we know we should. Our faith doesn’t guarantee us an easy life or clear the path of all misery, but rather gives us the strength and courage to do our Kingdom work. Palms or persecution will both be in our lives as well, but God has provided us the purpose and the path.
Lord, you sent Jesus to save us and we can’t begin to thank you for this gift of mercy. We will not every deserve it, but we want to serve you in faith and love. Be present in our trials and celebrations as we love and serve you, even when the world around us influences us away from you. We claim your Son Jesus, and we commit to bringing others to Christ in all we do. AMEN.
Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, `Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, `I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, `Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, `One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
When I was growing up in Fernandina Beach, FL, there was a guy who would park his small, red pick up truck on Centre Street in the historic downtown 8 block section of shops and restaurants. In my memory, he came every Friday morning in the summers, as I worked at Palmetto, LTD, a small clothing shop two blocks from the docks. He parked right outside the shop sometimes, and had a megaphone as his communication tool. He screamed out shouts of hellfire and damnation as he stood alone with empty parking spaces all around him and tourists crossing the street to avoid any confrontation. We usually kept the front door to the shop open to attract more business, but we closed it when he was close by to block out the screaming and wait for him to leave.
This was my early definition of “evangelism” and I was not interested. I also didn’t see anybody hearing that and thinking to themselves, “Hey, that guy makes a ton of sense and I want that life for myself too!” Hearing someone yelling out the consequences of our choices is never going to fall into the best practices for changing our beliefs. We have to change the way we view the concept of evangelism.
An unnamed woman who met a stranger became one of the most famous evangelists in the Gospels. She didn’t know Jesus when they met at the well, but he surely knew her, just as he knows each and every one of us. Knowing or believing in him isn’t a prerequisite to being known by God, and this story highlights that this woman certainly wasn’t full of virtues and family values. In the Christian tradition, we know many stories of Jesus’ love, forgiveness, healing and grace, but this woman knows none of this. Yet she goes back to her community and spreads her story of meeting Jesus so very well, striking just the right chord with those who heard of it, that they became believers who welcomed Jesus to their community. And it all started with a chance meeting at an unremarkable place, with no planned intentions or prior understanding and in the midst of a load of what we would call promiscuous behaviors.
So how does this connect to my life? I have always tried to live a life of good works and try always to be my authentic self, but I also rush through my life at a breakneck speed, working to get my to-do list accomplished and fulfill my many roles of wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend and principal. I know I miss out on opportunities to just tell my story of my encounters with Christ. I always find the time to tell funny stories, share my struggles with a colleague, hear the latest news from those I know, and even to exchange some tidbits of gossip. But I don’t always make the time to share the Good News of Christ in the world. Maybe I don’t know how? Maybe (and more likely), I don’t share my relationship with Christ with others because it makes me uncomfortable. And I’m not going to be lumped in with that yelling dude from my childhood for sure, so I don’t seize the opportunities when they are right in front of me.
But if not me, and if not you, then who are we trusting to share God’s love? Are we leaving it to the street corner screamers? The televangelists preaching prosperity? The door to door kids giving out literature? Those ways don’t work to turn people to Christ – if they did, more people would be doing it. Instead, we need to walk in our faith in all of our relationships, sharing our faith through our actions of love and support, our words of encouragement rather than hurtfulness, letting our deep love of God show in all we do. And tell our stories when we can. If a harlot who has a casual meeting at a well can be an evangelist, then we certainly stand a chance when we TAKE the chance to change the world and bring folks to Christ.
Gracious Father, thank you for continuing to give us the gift of your love and forgiveness. Equip us with the words and actions to be tellers of your truth in all we do and say. Continue to lead us to share our love for you and to bring us closer to Christ. You know our strengths and our challenges and still love us and count on us to do your kingdom work. With your support we can do more to spread the Good News! In your name we pray. AMEN.
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
When tucking young children into bed, they may share many ways to stall having to go to sleep. They need a drink of water, another hug, one more book read or another stuffed animal tucked under the covers. But many kids are also afraid of the dark. When when they grow up, the fear usually abates. But night and darkness still have a sense of mystery as compared to a day of sunshine and blue skies where you can see every detail all around you.
It’s no coincidence that Nicodemus seeks Jesus out at night, is my guess. The symbolism of a nighttime inquiry of Jesus from a religious leader adds to the drama and alludes to the darkness that comes before the enlightenment of learning and new knowledge. I picture Nicodemus stealthily moving in the cover of night to find Jesus to get first hand clarification on the new teachings that are spreading around the area. Questioning the religious leadership was not a common or allowable circumstance. But Nicodemus must have had a thousand questions about the gospel of love and acceptance being taught by Jesus, throwing all the rules the Jewish people held as sacred, right out on their ear. And the fear of the unknown must have been overwhelming as Nicodemus worked to get a better understanding of how his life as a Pharisee would be changing. What a brave move to confront his fears and seek deeper understanding of Jesus!
Jesus’ words in this week’s Gospel reading from John are some of the most famous words of the Christian faith shared throughout the world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” I remember seeing a colorfully wigged man at nationally televised NFL games with a big poster with John 3:16 painted boldly on it (some pretty persistent evangelism if you ask me!) and we used to hear the verse every Sunday at church from the Priest just before the passing of the Peace. It is one of the greatest summaries of our faith. Through love, we are promised eternal life; our earthly lives are not all there is to our existence. Another mystery really, as our human brains can’t even understand what that really means for us.
But as we read the Word, spend time in prayer and listening to God and do his Kingdom work with love in our daily lives, the darkness of our limited imagination begins to be illuminated with the wisdom that comes from a deeper relationship with Christ. Nicodemus knew how to be religious leader before Jesus came along and cast doubts on his way of living. He was brave and went looking for answers. He heard radical things that most likely felt contradictory to what he might have always believed. This reading doesn’t share what Nicodemus did with this new-found knowledge and command for living; but we Christians have access to Jesus’ teaching. We have to keep learning about and practicing our faith to stay out of darkness. Do not be afraid of stepping out in faith; be more afraid of what will happen if you don’t.
God of light, push away our darkness and our fear and show us the way to live faithfully in your love. Teach us your ways and help us walk with you every day in the light of your gifts of grace and mercy. We are not worthy but gratefully accept the gift of eternal life and perfect healing in you, O Great Redeemer! AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
Love for Enemies
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Sometimes (or maybe all the time and I’m too thick-headed to see it clearly), all the readings in the lectionary line up and a Big Picture Idea jumps off the page and sparks an idea. This week is that time for me. Here is a link to all the readings if you want more than just today’s Gospel reading. For me, the message I hear loud and clear is to “Be Brave.”
All of this week’s readings are full of do’s and don’t’s; there are some that are suggestions and some that seem pretty black and white no-no’s. And I think most “come to church every week Christians” really feel comfortable in the rules that are spelled out. Especially the YOU SHALL NOT ones – man do we love to hang our hats and identities on those! This claim of Christianity often struggles to stretch beyond the rules and leaves us incomplete in our attempts to follow Christ.
I have a friend who teaches Kindergarten. He is a compassionate and committee educator and the students who are lucky enough to be in his class every year learn lessons far beyond the required curriculum and state standards. He is innovative and diligent in creating a classroom environment where all students are compelled to excellence. I refer many educators to his blog because he discusses issues in ways that help all educators reflect on their practice. But my very favorite topic that is a thread throughout all of his written discussions, his professional development presentations with other educators and especially, with his students, is his one and only classroom rule: Be Brave.
Now, you might think that schools should always spell out to students the exact expectations for their behavior, much like the rules from Leviticus do (in extensive and figurative language, of course!), but imagine instead that all of those rules fall under that very broad umbrella of being brave. Jesus makes some pretty radical statements in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew about how we are expected to treat the people who are the hardest to love – those who wrong us, cheat us, lie to us, repel us and challenge us. They were even more radical back in Jesus’ day, as the cultural rules and governmental laws actually forbid the very things that Jesus calls us to do. To follow his example and heed his command to love one another is really quite brave. Courage is an under-appreciated quality to have when we make the commitment to follow Christ. I still think some rules are important (speed limits, as an example), but the reason we need them spelled out for us by God and our government is because when we rely on ourselves to keep us in check, we just fail and fall short of loving one another.
Loving one another is not a feeling. It is steeped in action. Love as a feeling is fleeting and shallow; love as action is life changing and living out the call to bring Christ to the world. It takes courage and bravery because it is not easy to do! When my teenager says those things that she does that cut me to the core, when a parent at school yells at me for a problem completely outside my control, when my husband lets me down, when a hurting person lashes out in anger – responding with love is not my first and most primal response. And I’m not very good at the loving response that Jesus calls us to have. My other cheek is in self-preservation mode! But when we respond back in anger or selfishness or withdraw our outreach and offer judgement instead of love, then we aren’t being very brave!
To quote Chris Rosati, a victim of ALS profiled on the show CBS Sunday Morning, “If I have enough time, I’ll change the world,” it is our jobs as followers of Christ to love with reckless abandon and be very, very brave. Brave enough to strive to be perfect. Because any less than that implies that our love won’t be shared with everyone. Changing the world is exactly what this radical love will do. Now go out and BE BRAVE!
Lord of love, your reconciled us to you with the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ. We don’t deserve the grace and mercy you give us every day and we long to be perfect in our love for you and for our brothers and sisters in Christ. Help us to be brave and courageous in our love for your people. We can do all things through you. AMEN.
This week, I was given the great blessing to share my story of attending Cursillo and the impact it has had on my life with our church family. As I continue to discern God’s call in my life, reflecting on the gifts I have received in my faith leave me in awe of our God. Here is the text of my sermon:
When I was 8 years old, my parents went to Cursillo in the Diocese of Florida. I don’t remember much about the weekends they were gone but it drastically changed the way our family existed after this experience for them. And a seed was planted in my life that was nurtured as I grew up in the church. Literally, I grew up in the church. I was baptized at 6 weeks old and won’t use all my fingers if I count the number of Sundays that my family was not present for worship times. And just about any other days for that matter, too. We settled down before my eighth birthday on a coastal island in North Florida, where our church home became the historic St. Peter’s Episcopal Parish in Fernandina Beach. My church family there continues to play a significant role in my life even all these years later and it was the perfect setting for me to start my marriage with David almost 22 years ago. It was in that first year we lived in Fernandina that the Cursillo movement began in the diocese in the mid 70s. My parents have always been early adopters of new ideas so it was no surprise when they attended Cursillo #3 in the Diocese of Florida.
What I remember most about Cursillo back then was what it meant through my very young eyes, since I obviously hadn’t experienced it directly of course. My parents wore their Cursillo nametags to church every week and literally hoards of folks from our tiny parish began attending this periodic retreat. My parents sponsored about half of them I think, which meant they were driving all over the diocese at first until our diocese completed their own beautiful camp and conference center in Live Oak, about 2 hours away. They would leave on Thursdays with their green passenger van filled with excited friends and luggage, and then on Sundays, they would hire a babysitter for us girls for a marathon afternoon and evening so they could collect their pilgrims from their weekend, arriving home far after we went to bed on a school night. Monthly, Mom and Dad would gather with their Cursillo friends for Ultreyas at our church – which was another word for party to my ears as a child. They also enrolled in the Education For Ministry or EFM course, started our first youth group and joined the choir. They served on vestries and search committees, while preparing and serving at the altar. Mom was a Daughter of the King, ECW president and Dad was in charge of the acolytes, parish fish fries and oyster roasts. What I can see today as an adult, as I reflect on their evolution as Christians was that although we had always GONE to church…we were now going far beyond weekly attendance and my parents were seeking out ways to serve the larger church and community. When I was 16 years old, I attended Happening #19 (which is similar to Cursillo but designed for teenagers), going on to serve future Happening weekends in Florida and in my adopted diocese of North Carolina during my time in college. I was yearning for that same feeling of connectedness my parents seemed to have to their friends through Christ, and as a young adult, I looked forward to the day when I would be able to attend Cursillo with my future husband just like my parents before me. This gave me a great foundation.
Cursillo is a Spanish word meaning “short course” and that’s exactly it’s intent. Participants (or pilgrims) spend three nights and three days focusing on renewal, refreshment, and recommitment to living for Christ. Most who attend Cursillo call this a “mountain top” experience. But as a beach girl, it was more like a “tropical island” experience for me…those days of my Cursillo weekend were spent away from the world of distractions and obligations, focused on renewing my commitment to Christ and giving me the tools to carry me beyond the weekend and into my fourth day. People who have attended Cursillo are called Cursillistas, and for us, the fourth day is the rest of our lives AFTER the weekend is over, when we are back with our families, friends, jobs and commitments, distractions, challenges and responsibilities.
So, back to my parents….they both began “GROUPING” after attending Cursillo; which as a young child, I thought that was code for Escape, for my mom in particular from the responsibilities of parenting three young girls. What they were really doing was keeping one another accountable for living out their lives in Christ. Their groups met every week and didn’t change too much over the years in membership. My dad’s original group is still meeting today almost 38 years later, and he plans to rejoin them when he moves back to Florida later this year. The weekend is not meant to be a one time shot of Jesus juice but rather it is designed to give us Christians a virtual road map to stay focused on what God calls us to do in the world.
As I was preparing for my talk today, I studied today’s readings, including the Gospel reading from the portion of the Sermon on the Mount that has Jesus admonishing those who murder, pass judgment on others, call others’ unkind names, and those with issues in their marriage. There are literally zillions of ways that we Christians stray from our responsibilities of loving and caring for one another, and we will continue to do so with unfortunate frequency. But instead of just hanging our heads and accepting the troubles we see every day, there are things we can do – things that we KNOW we are called to do as we walk with Christ. Cursillo’s approach to a short course in the Christian Life was more than a reminder for me – it was a catalyst to jump-start my personal responsibility for the growth of my faith.
You too may be able to identify with this self-description; having grown up as a Christian and always being an Episcopalian, choosing to have faith hasn’t really ever been a struggle for me. I never really went through any dark periods in my life where I didn’t believe in God, or that He loved me and created me. I had a pretty non-eventful childhood in comparison to the many challenges that I know people face in their families, and that could be viewed as lucky or even as BLESSED. But I am here to tell you that what that sort of, flat-lined history of faith did for me – no real significant peaks or valleys – is it left me soft and complacent in my relationship with God. I said my prayers out of habit. I went to church every Sunday because that is what I had ALWAYS done my whole life. I did nothing heroic, had no great transformation when facing adversity; heck, I didn’t even have to make the effort to CHOOSE to believe. My Cursillo weekend made me realize that I could no longer sit back as a spectator in my life in Christ as a passive act of faith. I had to change my intentions to match God’s intentions when he created me and called me to follow him.
There are a lot of our daily activities and decisions, which put a barrier between God and us. This portion of the Sermon on the Mount that we hear today is intended to reach inside of each of us and shake us up a bit. I sure hope no one here today actually has committed murder, but the other list of acts that Jesus describes in his teachings today aren’t nearly as uncommon or even socially unacceptable as murder of course. But that is not the point at all. We may be able to identify with the particulars of divorce, judgment and lying; and it may make us uncomfortable. THAT IS GOOD! Being uncomfortable is a feeling I don’t like very much and when I feel uncomfortable, I am far more motivated to do something to change myself to move out of that feeling. And let’s face it — relying on my own decisions and myself alone, is probably what gets me in my biggest messes in life. It is ONLY when I rely on my Savior to lead and guide me in my daily life that I show any real progress toward self-improvement. Laws don’t necessarily help me; rules often get in my way and confine me. But the power of God’s love gives me the strength and determination to WANT to do better in my life and to do all things in love. Cursillo gave me the tools to consistently draw closer to Him and I am forever grateful for the chance to benefit from other’s witness of love and support that weekend and now in my fourth day.
So I ask you —- what is making you uncomfortable as you reflect on your relationship with God? But more importantly, what are you going to do about it? I am only a witness of my OWN life and decisions, and for me, making the decision to go to Cursillo was just one stop in my journey to discern God’s call to me. The results of my life in my Fourth Day are
· More intentional time in prayer; more focused listening to God
· Regular reading of the Bible as a tool for understanding my God
· Being deliberate in my actions to carry out the Kingdom work I am called to do.
None of that is radical. But all of it was haphazardly accomplished in my life with varying degrees of success prior to Cursillo. But my very favorite saying I learned on my weekend was this —- Make a Friend, Be a Friend, Bring a Friend to Christ. Friends – God calls us to love each other without discrimination of who may be deserving and to follow Him and bring others to Christ. If I imagine myself as one of the MULTITUDES who were able to hear the words of Jesus in person at the Sermon on the Mount, I am sure I would have been both uncomfortable and COMFORTED, knowing that my Savior was sent to save me. Not because I did anything to deserve it, but rather just because he loves me. And then I am called to help others feel that same love in Christ.
So I ask you to prayerfully consider whether Cursillo might be just what you need to begin moving in your walk with Christ. Talk it over with any one of us Cursillistas. We would love to help by answering questions you may have about the weekend or what the weekend has meant to each of us – because this is just my story. David and I shared the same weekend and had really unique experiences based on what we needed at that time in our lives. Come to a St. Peter’s Ultreya. Get together with one of our small groups or start one of your own where you focus on keeping one another accountable for staying faithful.
But at the very least, reflect on what little steps you can make today to focus on your prayer life, your time for study and the actions that you plan to take to live more intentionally in your relationship with God. Our relationships with one another require effort on our part to be successful. Let’s do the same with our relationship with Christ and take a more active role in serving and praising his name. There is a Cursillo weekend coming in March that may be timed just right for you to attend. Or maybe another weekend would fit better in your life. I challenge you to take the next step if you’ve been thinking and praying about this, or to learn more about the weekend and how to grow closer to God each and every day. Of all the relationships in my life, the one that both enriches me and challenges me the most is the one I have with God – and I am a better wife, mother, sister, friend, school principal and Child of God because of His Love. He is longing for a deeper relationship with you and me both…let’s at least take a step to meet Him.
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
When the Super Bowl came to Dallas in 2011, we had an epic ice and snow winter storm. We were stranded in our house and unable to drive out of the driveway for several days. It didn’t get above freezing for about 5 days and was bone-chillingly cold overnight. On about day 3 of the enforced ice-in, we lost power for most of the day. It was 8 degrees outside and the temperature was dropping quickly in the house. Luckily, we have a wood burning fireplace and were able to keep the temperature somewhat liveable. But it was a cloudy day and quite dark inside, making it hard to read a book – one of the only activities we could do with no power or no heat! We opened the refrigerator sparingly to keep the food from spoiling. We had some moments of brevity (have I mentioned we are native Floridians and do not enjoy any aspect of the cold weather???) including some simulations with candles at the table in an homage to Abe Lincoln’s log cabin way of life! Light became a fleeting commodity that day and the failure of my refrigerator bereft of power made me think about the old ways of life where preservation of meat was dependent upon the use of salt.
This reading spawns great memories of one of my favorite childhood Vacation Bible School songs, “This Little Light of Mine.” as well as the a reminder of the saying that some of our older generations use when referring to down to earth type REAL people as “Salt of the Earth.” Jesus tells the multitudes present for the Sermon on the Mount that being a follower of Christ gives you the tools to be a game changer for yourself and others through the metaphors of salt and light.
I think a lot about my legacy. I have moved about in my career, working in several states and changing positions every few years within the school leadership framework. I start every new job with the end in mind….what will my legacy be when I am long gone? What will the impact of my presence be on the community? When I think like that and use the mission and vision of the organization, I have found that I spend less time focusing on the details and more time focusing on the big picture issues and decisions.
When I read about Jesus’ teachings, and think about that perspective of legacy, I think that is what Jesus is telling his followers in this Sermon. He doesn’t discard rules, but rather claims them and fulfills them through the lens of love. The commandments that we have are meant to be followed, but it is not about the following that Jesus concerns himself. To provide a metaphor, the rules for driving on the highway need to be followed to keep drivers safe. But there is no rule for courtesy – it is something that is appreciated within the order of driving safely. Nobody likes a rude driver, right?
Salt and light are regular, everyday things that today we may take for granted (until we don’t have them in a power outage!!!). Salt makes food taste better and has historically been used as a preservative. Light shows us the way to get around in the dark, or gives us more time to spend in conversation with friends and family. The opposite of light is darkness; and the good things we do generally don’t get done in the dark, right? The parables and metaphors that Jesus uses to teach simple folks like us make it easier for us to understand the very complex concept of grace and mercy and God’s will for us. He speaks in this teaching about the end of life goal for heaven and that we must remove those things which separate us from God. Following the commandments is still necessary, but the rules alone won’t be fulfilling God’s promise. We must love; bring light to others and make flavorful our lives and those of others with the salt God gives us.
Heaven awaits and Jesus has paved the way.
Jesus, you are Light and Salt of the earth and want us to be the same in your kingdom. Show us the way and keep us straight on our path to everlasting life in You. AMEN.
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
- “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
- according to your word;
- for my eyes have seen your salvation,
- which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
- a light for revelation to the Gentiles
- and for glory to your people Israel.”
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed– and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
We were on vacation on the island of Kauai about eight years ago and visited a local church for Sunday worship, as we try to do whenever we travel. We happened upon the yearly visit from the Bishop of Hawaii, so the church was packed and there was a high level of excitement present at the gathering. One of the great things about worshiping God in the Episcopal Church is the familiarity of the liturgy, no matter where you go, but there are still subtle nuances in each individual parish which make it a distinctive experience, and the Bishop’s visit was certainly a factor making this visit even more unique. We were about halfway through the sermon when my husband leaned over and whispered in my ear…”Do you know who that is?” and he pointed to a gentleman sitting in the pew in front of ours. Let’s start with this – I have a terrible memory. I also need a lot of scaffolding to keep information safely in my brain and I couldn’t place this guy at all. David tried to give me a few subtle hints, but I was getting nowhere. Then he shared that it was Beau Bridges, the actor and brother of Jeff Bridges. He was dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts (as most of the worshipers were as well) and he passed the peace to us later in the service like he was just another guy and without any hint of his fame and fortune. We chatted with him later and learned this was his home parish, and he welcomed us as parishioners should always welcome any visitors to their church.
But I didn’t recognize him at all. David not only recognized him, but was able to name many of his appearances in movies and on TV. Once I was told who he was and what roles he had, I was able to make the connection in my memory. Without the help of my husband (whose ability to remember and recognize people from his past is LEGENDARY!) I would have never even noticed Beau Bridges. For me, it took someone to make that connection for me – then I was a bit starstruck and distracted the rest of the service, admittedly.
Simeon knew that he had to meet God’s Messiah before dying. He knew to go the temple the day that a little baby named Jesus was brought by Mary and Joseph to be presented as he was “guided by the Holy Spirit” to be there that day to meet him. I am sure that Mary and Joseph knew that their roles as parents to Jesus were a bit out of the ordinary based on the experiences with the archangel and the whole “born in a manger” thing, but they still may not have understood at that time the significance their little boy would have on them and the world. Simeon didn’t necessarily know that either, but the prayer he speaks following his meeting of a little child in the temple speaks loud and clear that he understood something huge had just happened to him and to the world. That prayer has been so important in the life and development of the Christian church that it is found in our Book of Common Prayer, specifically in the service of Compline found here.
Lord, you now have set your servant free *
to go in peace as you have promised; For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, *
whom you have prepared for all the world to see: A Light to enlighten the nations, *
and the glory of your people Israel. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
His parents seemed to be surprised by this spontaneous prayer from a stranger who recognized the significance of Jesus’ presence on Earth. Simeon hugged Jesus and then told Mary a great foreshadowing of her life as a mother and the powerful impact on the world that Jesus would have. He RECOGNIZED both the greatness of Jesus’ life and the pain that would come to Mary as a result. There were most likely others in the temple that day, but Simeon was the one who knew that this small child would change the world. After Simeon, the elderly lady named Anna had a similar experience. She appears to have spent her nights and days in worship at the temple around the clock, and must have seen folks coming and going all day long. But something was different about Jesus. She wasn’t afraid to go and tell all who came after of the saving grace of Jesus in Jerusalem.
Beau Bridges was lovely and welcoming to us that day in church, but Jesus is so much more to all who turn to him. As we look ahead to more severe winter weather, the picture for today’s entry is that of the flower called the Snowdrop flower. It is a winter flower that appears around February 2nd for the first time, the day some refer to as Candlemas – celebrating the cleansing of Mary following the birth of Jesus when the baby is brought to the temple for the first time. It looks like such a fragile flower but has an incredible design that encourages it to bloom in the darkest and coldest times of winter.
We don’t always feel equipped to face the dark and cold times that challenge us in our daily lives ourselves. But the strength comes from somewhere beyond us and directly from the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Simeon would have missed out on his lifetime opportunity if he had ignored the will of the Lord. Anna’s deliberate existence in the very presence of the Lord gave her the chance to speak to others about Jesus in ways that wouldn’t have been possible if she hadn’t stayed the course. God gives us strength to face our challenges and provides us all we need if we will just take a moment to recognize it, even if it is hidden right in plain sight.
Our help is in the name of the Lord, and we accept the call to recognize Your Presence in our lives. The gift of your son was life-changing and in an enduring influence on our work in the world. Thank you for always finding ways to reach us and have us see you in the face of others. In your name we pray. AMEN
When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles–
the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea– for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
In 21st century America, we are invited to join, participate, follow, watch, pledge and try out a zillion different things. I’ve been invited to parties and participated in fundraisers; I’ve followed groups on Twitter, plan to watch the Super Bowl with friends, pledged a sorority in college, and auditioned for plays in community theatre. When I’m invited, I experience a range of emotions depending on the situation. Being invited to to follow someone on Twitter doesn’t necessarily mean too much to me, while being invited to pledge my sorority may have changed the trajectory of my life as I entered adulthood. Invitations may be easy to accept or decline, depending on the attachment, commitment level and emotional involvement. But just being invited to participate can send a jolt of excitement (ok, maybe it’s not that exciting to follow someone on Twitter – but certainly more exciting to lead an organization or join a new group of friends in a fun Friday night activity). I am quite often caught off guard if I didn’t see the invitation coming (like someone asking me to lead a group when I don’t see myself as the leader before being asked) – receiving the request can be flattering and/or daunting, causing me to do a quick assessment of my skills to help me determine if I am up for the task.
Today’s Gospel reading finds Jesus fulfilling another prophecy related to charismatic John’s imprisonment and the unspoken freedom it gives Jesus to move to Galilee and really increase his presence as a teacher without the confusion of followers choosing between John and Jesus. But he knows he can’t do this without a long lasting group of followers. Andrew, Peter, James and John were most likely hard working fishermen who had little to no social standing in the community. They caught fish for a living; they didn’t run a bank, weren’t CEOs of a Fortune 500 company, nor were they lawyers or doctors. Their jobs were simple yet powerful – go out and get fish so people will eat. The parallel between the jobs of fishermen and the jobs of apostles can be drawn simply: you know how to fish, now let’s fish for people.
I have often wondered over the years, as this Gospel reading comes around, about how I would have likely reacted at the invitation to leave my livelihood and family to go and do some pretty crazy things without the security of my current life. Sadly, I always reach the same conclusion – I’m not very confident that my answer would have been a resounding yes. There is much evidence in my current life of resisting the call to serve, with most of those invitations not EVEN requiring me to give up much of anything. I am currently wrestling pretty mightily with a very radical and transformational call to ministry and if that is any indication, leaving my nets on the side of the Sea of Galilee seems like it may have been a pretty unlikely outcome.
So here is the great news…Jesus doesn’t really tap us on the shoulder and ask us to walk away from everything to do. Whew!!!!! His invitation is comprised of just asking us to follow him. Seems simple, right? Simple – yes. Easy to do – not so much. If you are anything like me, you wake up with great intentions for the way your day will go, or you go to bed on New Year’s Eve with a year’s worth of new commitments for bettering yourself, only to find yourself forgetting all about your commitments or well intentioned to-do lists. It’s hard to keep our focus on Christ and loving each other when we have to run to the grocery store on the way to the office to get the snacks for the meeting we will be hurrying to right after work and before we head home to fold laundry and make lunches for the next day (makes fishing on the Sea of Galilee seem quite simple after all!).
But following Jesus gives all those other things the appropriate purpose and perspective. Committing to adding purposeful study, prayer and actions that bear witness to our relationship with Christ can start with small habits in the morning when you first wake up, at the end of the day when you are ready to rest or all throughout the day mixed in with your other to-do list items. It’s somewhat surprising how quickly those “habits” become integrated in our lives when we do them with a purpose.
Following Christ may mean a drastic change in your lifestyle and commitments. Or it may mean adding in special time at the foot of the Cross each day. Whatever it means for you, the first step is accepting the invitation to accept that God has chosen and loves each and every one of us. The next steps are completely in your court.
The love of our Father is greater than we can imagine and our invitation to follow him sometimes falls on deaf ears. Help us to see you in the world, find time to spend with your in prayer, and to live our lives as followers of you. You are our All in All. AMEN.