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Sermon, April 10, 2016

Sunday, April 24th, 2016

Sermon.04.10.16
St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Acts 9.1-6. (7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5.11-14; John 21.1-19

Several sermons could be preached from these passages, for they are full of significance and meaning. In what follows, I will attempt to tie several of these passages together. Let’s begin with Psalm 30.7-10 (NRSV):
7 While I felt secure, I said, “I shall never be disturbed.
You, Lord, with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains.”
8 Then you hid your face, and I was filled with fear.
9 I cried to you, O Lord; I pleaded with the Lord, saying,
10 “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit?
will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?
In your own experience, how often have you felt comfortably secure only to have some life–changing experience happen? You may suddenly be told you have cancer, you may experience an auto accident, or encounter an experience that totally reorients your life. As I have said before, growth rarely takes place apart from some adversity. Can you imagine raising a mighty oak tree in a hot house? It would probably look wonderful, but if moved outside, it would not be able to withstand the winds of real storms.
In our previous consideration of the Gospel of John, we noted Peter’s denial of Jesus; we further noted virtually all of the disciples, in one way or another, betrayed Jesus when they deserted him at the time of the crucifixion.
But Peter felt he was secure in his faith; after all, he told Jesus that he was willing and ready to lay down his life for Jesus. While the Gospel accounts do not confirm it, we believe it was Peter who drew his sword when they were about to arrest Jesus. Yes, he was so secure he was ready to die, but Jesus responded, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times” (John 13.37-38; NRSV). Peter betrayed Jesus over a charcoal fire. Luke 22.60-61 tells us when the cock crowed the third time, Jesus turned and looked at Peter. Peter went out and wept bitterly. So much for “While I felt secure, I said, ‘I shall never be disturbed.’”
Today’s gospel opens with a few of the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. Peter announces that he is going fishing. The others agree to join him. Peter’s conduct is likely a reflection of his insecurity. He still remembers the look in Jesus’ eyes – a look that pierced his very soul and being. He will never forget that look.
When we are insecure, we tend to return to what we know best – we move toward security in an effort to regain our balance. I witnessed this phenomenon on numerous occasions when working in human resource management in a unionized plant. When we would promote a person from the union ranks to foreman, I knew it was only a matter of time before a grievance charging the foreman with doing hourly work would appear on my desk. When the pressure was intense, the foreman would return to some hourly task. Peter was insecure – it was time to go fishing.
Now I might throw out a word of caution here. I can imagine some of you are thinking – yeah, he just bought a new boat. Give him a bit of insecurity and he will be on the water! In my defense, fishing is not what I know best – I am still learning. Nonetheless, it is still a good place to think!
You know the story – over another charcoal fire, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” We suspect that “these” refers to the other disciples, but as the word employed can also be neuter, Jesus may be asking, “Do you love me more than everything else?” As Scott Hoezee (http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/easter-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel) reminds us, Jesus was referring to agape love – the sacrificial depth of love that comes from God. When Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you” he did not use the word for agape love; he used phile – the word for brotherly love or friendship. Jesus told Peter to feed his lambs. Jesus asked the question again using agape love, and again Peter answered using phile love. Jesus then told Peter to tend his sheep. Jesus asked the question a third time, but this time he used phile, the word which Peter used. Peter answered, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love (phile) you.” In response, Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep. Jesus then told Peter that when he was young, he would fasten his own belt, but when he grew old, someone else would fasten a belt around him and take him where he did not want to go — in other words, to be crucified. Then Jesus issued a command, “Follow me” (John 21.18-19; NRSV). Jesus offered Peter the opportunity to reaffirm his love for him three times – once for each denial. This was Peter’s second conversion which led to the command to follow Jesus.
In Acts 9 we have the story of Saul’s conversion. I am sure that Saul also felt secure in his work of rounding up members of The Way. After all, he had men who accompanied him and the requisite letters and the authority of the high priest. Yet Saul was struck down on the road to Damascus and heard a voice which said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” and the reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Saul was struck blind; in a flash of light, he instantaneously went from security to insecurity. God called Ananias, a disciple in Damascus, and told him to meet Saul. Ananias reminded the Lord of what he was asking; “You know, Lord, Saul might kill me.” Ananias obviously felt there were better things for him to do – perhaps to teach Sunday School, run the nursery, or even be junior warden, but God said, “Go, for he is an instrument I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9.15; NRSV).
What are some practical applications we can draw from these readings? First, we have already noted the tenuousness of our own security. We tend to take pride in our security, but as these stories show, worldly security can be stripped from us in an instant. Consider Job! He lost everything but his wife, and was then afflicted with loathsome sores. On those occasions when his wife would tell him to curse God and die, I suspect he was wondering why God did not allow Satan to throw her into the bargain.
Second, these stories show us that Jesus meets us where we are at. Peter was fishing, with no luck I might add. Everyone who fishes knows what that is like! Jesus told him and the disciples to cast their net on the other side. Upon doing so, they were overwhelmed with an abundance of fish. And these weren’t little fish, like Lee catches. These were big fish – 153 of them. There was probably some significance to that number, but if so, it’s been lost.  Jesus meets us where we are at. For Peter and the disciples it was literally in fishing and a post-resurrection breakfast over a charcoal fire with some tasty fish. Note how Jesus twice asked Peter if he loved him with God’s sacrificial agape love, but the best Peter could offer was the phile love of friendship. On the third request, Jesus met Peter where he was at, and asked him if he loved him with phile love. With each question, Jesus gave Peter a monumental task – feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. I suspect Jesus knew that peter would come to love him with pure agape love, but he met Peter where he was at. Jesus also met Saul where he was at – on the road to Damascus while hunting followers of the way. Hmm – fishing and hunting – how is that for proof texting?!
Third, when Christ meets us where we are at, and we respond to Christ’s call, we experience joy and thankfulness. Life may not be easy – it may lead to a cross, but as long as we are obedient, we will experience joy and thanksgiving. In Psalm 30, the psalmist exalts God for the healing he has experienced: “You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave” (Vs. 3). When our illusions are shattered, when our sense of security is demolished, we experience the darkness; we may even weep. The psalmist acknowledges this when he says, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Vs. 6). In verses 12 and 13, the psalmist continues, “You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy. Therefore, my heart sings to you without ceasing, O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.” That sounds like someone who has experienced the power of resurrection!
The power of the resurrection is available to us. God is willing to meet us where we are. Are we willing to respond to God’s call? If we do, we will ultimately come to experience the joy of worshiping God “with the myriads and myriads and thousands of thousands.” Like them, we will sing with a full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” We shall not only hear the myriads and the thousands – we shall also hear “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever” (Rev. 5.11-13; NRSV).
Christ meets us where we are at that we might ultimately meet him where he is at. And as the old hymn says, “What a day of rejoicing that will be.”
Amen

Sermon, April 3, 2016

Sunday, April 24th, 2016

Sermon.04.03.16
St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry V. Ort
Acts 5.27-32; Psalm 118.14-29; Revelation 1.4-8; John 20.19-31

Today’s Gospel reading picks up where we left off on Easter Sunday. As you may recall, early in the morning Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found the stone had been rolled away. She quickly ran to Peter and John and reported that Jesus’ body had been taken away. They raced to the tomb, found the linen wrappings, but no sign of Jesus so they returned to their homes. Mary remained and wept; as she wept, she looked into the tomb and saw two angels. When she turned away, she encountered Jesus but did not recognize him until he called her by name. She responded, “Rabbouni!” Jesus then told her to go to his brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary returned to the disciples and announced, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20.1-18; NRSV).
Today’s reading informs us it is now evening on the same day. Jesus disciples have met, but the door is locked “for fear of the Jews.” Yes, their leader has been arrested, tried, and crucified – there may be some cause for fear. As you may recall, only John remained close to Jesus during the crucifixion. The rest of the disciples had scattered in fear.
Imagine that you are one of the disciples. What would you most likely have been thinking and feeling? At the conclusion of the Last Supper, Jesus and the disciples went to the Mount of Olives. There Jesus told them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Mark 14.26-28; NRSV). Peter avows though all the others desert him, he will not do so. Jesus then told him before the cock crowed, he will have denied him three times.
So here we are, sitting around, a couple of oil lamps are burning, and we are all wrestling with our desertion. When things got rough, we couldn’t take it – we fled the scene. Maybe it is best to avoid Jesus for a while. Yes, I remember when Jesus called me to follow him. Oh, the things I have witnessed – turning water into wine, the multiplication of five loaves and two fish, the stilling of the storm, the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame and crippled walk – things that defy reason and explanation. And his teaching! It was wonderful to sit and learn at the Master’s feet. I have never heard another Rabbi quite like him. But I fled. I am filled with self-loathing and shame. I long to see him, yet I fear the encounter, for what will he say to me? Will he upbraid me for my weakness and lack of courage? It’s no wonder we are all so quiet. And there sits Peter; what must he be thinking after so boldly declaring that he would never desert Jesus and then denying he knew him three times. Yes, I feel bad, but I am glad I am not in his shoes. Judas betrayed Jesus, but aren’t we just as bad? Haven’t we all betrayed Jesus? Look at the food in our midst – it’s hardly been touched. Where do we go from here? I suppose we can resume fishing.
Then Jesus comes and stands in our midst. He tells us, “Peace be with you,” and shows us his hands and side. We rejoice, and Jesus once again says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus breathes upon us and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20.21-23; NRSV).
When we tell Thomas, who was missing, he exclaims, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20.25; NRSV).
A week later we are once again gathered together; this time Thomas is with us. The door is shut, but not locked, and once again Jesus appears in our midst and says, “Peace be with you.” He invites Thomas to place his fingers in the wounds in his hands and to place his hand in his side. Thomas is thinking, “How did Jesus know I spoke those words?” and he declares, “My Lord and my God!”  Then Jesus asks Thomas if he believes because of what he has seen, and reminds us, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20.26-29; NRSV).
What a rich and revealing story! Are we really any different from the disciples? As baptized members of Christ’s Church, Jesus has called each and every one of us to new life in Christ. Jesus has welcomed us into God’s family; we are children of God; Jesus is our brother! Yet can any of us say we have never abandoned Jesus when things got tough? Can any of us say we have never betrayed Jesus? Just as with Adam and Eve in the Garden, and with the disciples, our abandonment and betrayal leads us to hide, to hope that Jesus will not find us. We experience remorse, and in the midst of our remorse, Jesus comes to us and says, “Peace be with you.” In a bit of a footnote, I share the following with you: In Arabic, “Peace be with you” is “Asalamu Alaikum” which is the traditional greeting and departure for Arabs and Muslims.
We experience Jesus Christ’s forgiveness. Christ forgives our sin; Christ does not retain our sins. And with Christ, we are called to forgive the sins of others as opposed to retaining them and using them against those who have wronged us. Jesus Christ tells us, “Yes, you have betrayed me; I have not retained your sins; you are forgiven; peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus also desires to breathe on us that we too might receive the Holy Spirit such that we are empowered the work he has sent us to do. When the Spirit is with us, we do not have to rely on our own power – limited power which leads to abandonment and betrayal.
With the Spirit, we can stand with Peter and the apostles and say, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5.29; NRSV). And with the psalmist, we can proclaim, “The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation….I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord….The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes. On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it. Hosannah, Lord, Hosannah!’ (Psalm 118.14, 17, 22-25; NRSV).
When we have encountered God’s transforming peace, we too will exclaim, “Hallelujah!”

Amen

Sermon, April 17, 2016

Sunday, April 24th, 2016

Sermon.04.17.16
St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Acts 9.36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7.9-17; John 10.22-30

In many churches, this Sunday is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. It is easy to see why. Three of our readings directly connect to the Good Shepherd. Psalm 23 begins “The Lord is my Shepherd” (NRSV). In John’s vision in the Book of Revelation, we are told those who stand before the throne will no longer hunger and thirst for “the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to the springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7.17; NRSV). Last, our reading from John follows Jesus’ declaration, “I am the gate for the sheep…I am the good shepherd” (John 10.7, 11; NRSV). Jesus further tells the Jews and the Pharisees the Father loves him because he lays down his life of his own accord and takes it up again, that he has the power to do so, and in doing so, he follows the command of the Father.
That must have really set the Jews and Pharisees on edge! Some said Jesus was demon possessed and out of his mind; they asked, “Why listen to him?” Others said, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” (John 10.20-21; NRSV). The question of the day was, “Who is this man?”
Sometime later, in the winter, during the festival of Dedication, or the Feast of Lights (what we now call Hannakuh), Jesus was walking in Solomon’s Portico on the east side of the Temple. The people’s hopes were high; expectancy was in the air. The celebration commemorated the “restoration and purification of the temple by Judas Maccabeus three years after its desecration by the Greek general Antiochus Epiphanes in 178 B.C.” (Fredrickson, Roger. John, The Communicator’s Commentary, p. 186). Josephus wrote of Antiochus Epiphanes as follows:
Now Antiochus was not satisfied either with his unexpected taking the city, or with its pillage, or with the great slaughter he had made there; but being overcome with his violent passions, and remembering what he had suffered during the siege, he compelled the Jews to dissolve the laws of their country, and to keep their infants uncircumcised, and to sacrifice swine’s flesh upon the altar (http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Antiochus_IV_Epiphanes).
The victory of Judas Maccabeus was cause for celebration. It also gave rise to the hope that God would send another liberator: “Would God’s divine deliverer come at this time to set His people free” (Fredrickson, Roger. John, The Communicator’s Commentary, p. 186).
Thus, the Jews once again gather about him, and they ask, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (John 10.24; NRSV). How was Jesus to answer? Had Jesus responded, “Yes, I am the Messiah” they would not have understood, for, by “Messiah” Jesus meant something far different from what they had in mind. They were looking for someone who would free them from the oppression of Herod, Pilate, and Caesar; they were seeking a “this worldly” messiah. In contrast, Jesus was and is the Messiah for a heavenly kingdom, for a spiritual realm, in which the King is crowned on the cross.
So Jesus answered, “I have told you and you do not believe” (John 10.25; NRSV). He reminds them that the works he has done in his Father’s name testify to who he is, but they refuse to believe for they do not belong to his sheep. Jesus then says, “My sheep hear my voice, I know them; and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What the father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one” (John 10.27-30).
The following verses, verses beyond today’s reading, note the Jews took up stones with which to stone Jesus. Jesus knew if they were to stone him to death, they had to have a specific charge, so he said, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?” (John 10.32; NRSV). The Jews replied they were not going to stone him for any of those works, but rather for blasphemy, for though only human, he was making himself out to be God. Again, Jesus turns the tables and asks,
“Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ – and the scripture cannot be annulled – can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”
Thereafter, they tried to arrest him, but he escaped.
They were expected to believe on the basis of what they had seen. We might also note this is the same answer Jesus gave John the Baptist when he inquired from prison if Jesus were truly the Messiah or if they should wait for another: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7.22; NRSV).
Let us once again note Jesus’ words: “My sheep hear my voice, I know them; and they follow me.” Do you hear his voice calling you to follow him? For that matter, how do we hear God’s voice? How do we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd? Just how normal is it to claim that we -hear God’s voice?  It has jokingly been said, “When you talk to God, we call it prayer, but when God talks to you, we call it schizophrenia.”
When Jesus spoke of the sheep hearing his voice, he was drawing on an example that would have been common knowledge in the ancient Middle East. Though there were several shepherds in any given village, at night the sheep were kept in a common sheepfold. This practice afforded protection from predators. In the morning, the gatekeeper opened the gate, and each shepherd called his sheep. The sheep knew their shepherd’s voice; they would follow their shepherd who would lead them to graze in the surrounding hills and pastures. “He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters” (Psalm 23.2; NRSV). The sheep spent a great deal of time in the company of the shepherd.
In much the same manner today, our pets come to know our voice, and most respond if they are called. Many dogs and cats know the specific sounds of the car or truck we drive, and greet us at the door. My niece’s Australian shepherd knows the couch is off limits. When she is home, the dog never gets on the couch: when she is gone, it is another matter. If she happens to drive by her place without stopping and glances in the picture window, she can see the dog diving off the couch. A more dog-friendly set of rules applies when she is not at home.
If we are to know the Good Shepherd’s voice, we must spend time in his presence. How do we accomplish this? Through spending time in the green pastures of God’s word and being led beside the still waters. Christ calls us to follow him, to come away from the cares of this world, and to spend time in his presence. In doing so, we come to know him and his voice.
We also spend time in Christ’s presence when we attend church and experience the liturgy of the word and sacrament. And like the sheep, when we are with the rest of the flock, we are more inclined to recognize the call of, and to follow, the Good Shepherd. I suspect most of us, being Episcopalians, do not really hear God speak audible words. Words are not really necessary, for we hear God’s call through the Spirit. As the Spirit abides in us, communication most often takes place at deeper levels – heart speaks to heart.
As the Collects says, “O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

Sermon, March 20, 2016

Tuesday, March 29th, 2016

Sermon.03.20.16
St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Isaiah 50.4-9; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; Luke 22.14-23.56

Today’s narrative reading was rather long. One way to approach the time normally dedicated to a sermon would be to simply sit in silence for a few moments to allow time for reflection on these readings. Another way would be to preach the usual sermon. I’m opting for something in between – a bit of guided reflection.
In the ancient church, Passion Sunday was employed to remind those who were to be baptized into the Church on Easter Sunday that they are called to follow Christ into a life of sacrifice and suffering. How so?
The multitude welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem with shouts of joy and acclamation:  “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
The Pharisees wanted to tone things down, so they told Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” And Jesus replied, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out” (Luke 19.38-40; NRSV). Acclamation was the order of the day! We still use these words of acclamation in the Sanctus: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest” (BCP p. 362).
The people desired to install a stately king! This must have been a real temptation for Jesus – on the one hand, he could become a stately ruler; on the other hand, he could die in mockery as a king on the cross. Jesus was confronted by a choice. After a grandiose welcome, he cleansed the temple, and continued to teach, while those in power plotted to kill him.
Later in that week, as Jesus was celebrating the Passover meal with the disciples, he spoke the words of institution: “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22.19b; NRSV). As Jesus gave the cup, he noted the one who would betray him had his hand on the table. The disciples asked one another, “Is it I?” And then they began to dispute who would be the greatest. Perhaps they thought, “One of us is going to be the least – while we are at it, we might as well settle the question of who will be the greatest.” Jesus must have been banging his forehead on the table!
Jesus told them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”
The message was clear – here you are seeking worldly glory. If you are going to be part of the kingdom you must be transformed. The kingdom is not about seeing who can be the greatest, it is about a life of service! We see this clearly demonstrated in Jesus’ kenosis, the self-emptying which took place in the incarnation and the crucifixion.
Imagine you are a convert in Philippi, a Roman colony replete with splendor and honorific titles. As a Roman citizen you enjoy a high level of social status. All of your life you have jockeyed to see who would be greatest. You are to be baptized on Easter morning, to be resurrected from your old life to a new life in the kingdom. In your instruction, the words of Paul ring out,
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave (servant) being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross (Philippians 2.5-8; NRSV).
In other words, Easter and your baptism are only a few days away. It’s not too late to back out now, if this is not the life for you. If it is, let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus….
We are like the Philippians. We live in a society that would have each one of us grab as much greatness as we can. We are told we should keep migrants and refugees out so we can have more! We are told we have the right to lead and make war where we would for we are exceptional! We are told to distrust all Muslims. We are encouraged to betray Jesus with a kiss and cozy up to the rich and powerful. Yes, as with Jesus, Satan whispers in our ear – “Fall down and worship me and I will make your America great again.” We need to listen and live the words, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
During Lent we have attempted to gain insights into the mind and life of Jesus. Some of us have subtracted things that we might taste deprivation; others have added things that we might lead a more disciplined life. We are now in Holy Week. Let us join Jesus on the road to crucifixion and be reminded anew of his passion and suffering. Let us be reminded that Jesus would have us empty ourselves of all that is false such that we can assume the mind of Christ. Yes, we will suffer in doing so; we will experience a form of death. But with Jesus we will also experience the resurrection power – a power that breaks us from our tomb and leads us into a life of love, prayer, and service.
Amen

Sermon, February 28, 2016

Saturday, March 12th, 2016

Sermon.02.28.16
St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Exodus 3.1-15; Psalm 63.1-8; 1 Corinthians 10.1-13; Luke 13.1-9

I suspect that many of you heard about the little Episcopal Church that unknowing hired a shifty painter. He set about his work, but thinned the paint considerably. Fortunately the Vestry had no approved full payment before the first big rain storm. As the rain and the wind did it’s work, most of the paint ended up on the ground. The painter received a rather terse note – “Repaint, and thin no more!” In essence, that is today’s message, but I will develop it a bit more fully. By the way, I want to assure you the painter was not from the 3-K Company owned and operated by our Junior Warden, Lee Kratochvil – 3 K stands for Kratochvil, Kratochvil, and Klein. Thanks for you good work in Thorburn Hall!
Now, let’s look at the way repentance is woven through our lectionary readings. The reading from Exodus sets forth a theophany – God appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush. As you may recall, after killing an Egyptian who was mistreating the Hebrews, Moses fled to the wilderness and was working as a shepherd for Jethro, his father-in-law. He was in the vicinity of Mt. Horeb (which many believe to be the same as Mt. Sinai) when he saw a burning bush and turned aside to look upon it as it was not consumed. The voice of God spoke to Moses telling him to remove his sandals for he was on holy ground. God further told Moses that he had witnessed the affliction of the Hebrews, and then said, “So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” And Moses replied, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3.9-11; NRSV). Moses was not a quick sell; the prospect of returning to Egypt to potentially face capital punishment was not too high on his list of priorities. If you follow the conversation closely, you see that Moses objected four times that he was not the right man for the job: “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent…I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4.10; NRSV). “O my Lord, please send someone else” (Exodus 4.13; NRSV). God finally allowed Aaron to accompany and speak for him.
In what way is this a story of repentance? To repent means “to turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of one’s life; to feel regret or contrition; to change one’s mind” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/repent). Moses had sinned, had fled to the wilderness, but god appeared and called Moses to repentance and a new life – a life which required a change of one’s mind. Repentance has a double aspect – it is a turning away from as well as a turning toward. God called Moses to turn away from his life as a shepherd and turn toward the life of a prophet, liberator, and national leader.
Psalm 63 provides a wonderful glimpse into the life of one who has turned from sin toward God. Listen to these words of praise and admiration: “O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a barren and dry land where there is no water. Therefore I have gazed upon you in your holy place, that I might behold your power and your glory” (Vs. 1-2; NRSV). During the night watches, when he turns to meditation, the Psalmist says his lips and mouth shall be filled with praise; as God is his helper, he shall rejoice under the shadow of God’s wings.
In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul reminds the Church of Corinth that although their ancestors shared the Exodus and wanderings in the wilderness, God was not pleased with most of them for they chose to complain, to engage in sexual immorality, and to put Christ to the test. Over 23,000 were struck down in a single day. Paul warns the Church of Corinth that these things serve as an example and were recorded for their (and our) instruction. We are to be on watch that we do not fall and are assured that we will not be tested beyond our strength, for God always provides a way out of such testing.
The Gospel reading from Luke 13.1-9 is a continuation of the preceding chapter.    Jesus is addressing a crowd of thousands which had been gathering. He warns that nothing is “covered up” which “will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known” (Luke 12.; NRSV). Jesus tells the multitude that those who acknowledge him before others will be acknowledged, whereas those who deny him will be denied before the angels of heaven. Jesus cautions about greed which will cause a man to tear down his barns such that he may build bigger barns with no thought for the true condition of his soul. Jesus tells of the lazy servant who failed to be ready for the return of his master; we are to be dressed for action with our lamps lit – to be prepared for what is to come! Jesus also tells the multitude that though they can read the signs which indicate the coming of rain, they fail to read the signs of the present time. Time after time, Jesus is saying, “Be prepared!”
Today’s Gospel reading begins with some in the crowd telling Jesus of some Galileans Pilate had killed during their worship such that their blood had become mingled with the blood of the sacrifices. Jesus asks them if they believe these Galileans suffered because they were worse sinners than other Galileans. Let it be noted that this was the commonly held view – disaster was visited only on those who are deserving. It is surprising how many still hold this view. Jesus then asks if the eighteen who perished when the tower of Siloam fell were greater sinners than the others. Jesus teaches that the Galileans were killed by Pilate’s forces; the eighteen were killed due to faulty construction. None of them perished because they were more sinful than others – they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The message should be clear – no one knows when they may perish unexpectedly – be prepared.
Then Jesus tells the story of the fig tree planted in the vineyard. Why is a fig tree planted in a vineyard? Israel was often compared to a fig tree. Is this a symbolic representation of Israel in God’s greater vineyard? We do not know. But the owner of the vineyard directs the gardener to cut the fig tree down, for it has not borne fruit in any of the preceding three years. Might these three years refer to the time of Jesus’ ministry? The gardener entreats the owner of the vineyard to give him one more year. During that time, the gardener will dig around the tree and fertilize it. If it bears fruit, fine; if not, go ahead and cut it down.
Some powerful lessons emerge from these readings.
First, God repeatedly calls us to repentance, and warns us to be prepared. God calls us to turn away from our old life, the life of this world, and to turn toward new life, life in the Kingdom of God.
Second, like Moses, we are prone to act in what we see as our own interest. We love to argue with God about what is the best course for our life! “I am not elegant of speech.” “Who am I to approach Pharoah?” “I don’t know how to do that?” “But I have never taught church school.” “I am sure someone else is better qualified than I am.” Remember the old saying – “God does not always call the prepared, but he always prepares the called.” If we always say “no” are we refusing the incremental steps of preparation that God desires of us?
Third, like the Psalmist, as we move deeper into our life in Christ, as we journey further into a life of repentance, we find that praise becomes second nature. We identify with the psalmist’s utterance: “O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.” There was a time in my own life when I would not have identified with these words; I did not eagerly seek God, or thirst for God. Now these words speak to my deepest self – my true self. They express a longing which comes from having experienced God’s grace, God’s love, and God’s support. These are things we come to experience only through repentance.
In today’s Eucharist, may we experience repentance as a renewal of mind; may we catch a clearer vision of God’s grace, love, and support.
Amen

Sermon 2/7/2016

Friday, February 12th, 2016

Sermon.02.07.16

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Exodus 34.29-35; 2 Corinthians 3.12-4.2; Luke 9.28-43a; and Psalm 99

 

We began Epiphany by noting the definition of “epiphany” – a sudden insight into “the essential nature or meaning of something” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/epiphany). Each Sunday of Epiphany has provided us with insight into Jesus’ nature and the meaning of his ministry; into the fullness of God’s nature, love, and grace. Let’s briefly review these insights.

First, Jesus’ baptism. After his baptism Jesus was praying, and Luke (3.21-22; NRSV) tells us, “the heaven was opened, the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

On the Second Sunday of Epiphany, we considered Jesus’ first miracle – changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana despite his having told Mary that his time had not yet come.

On the Third Sunday of Epiphany, we encountered Jesus, the hometown boy of Nazareth, reading from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4.17-18; NRSV). We also heard his pronouncement, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4.21; NRSV).

Last Sunday we continued the story of Jesus in Nazareth and noted how Jesus rebuked those in the synagogue for their disbelief – “Is not this Joseph’s son?” Jesus confronted them and made it abundantly clear that the coming of the Kingdom of God is meant for all people – Jew and Gentile alike. Though they would have thrown Jesus over the cliff at the edge of town, Jesus walked through their midst.

Today, the last Sunday of Epiphany, we encounter the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. At the start of Epiphany, I noted how Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration share three features – prayer, a physical manifestation of God’s presence, and the voice of God. Today’s Gospel reading begins with these words: “Now about eight days after these sayings, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and went up on the mountain to pray” (Luke 9.28; NRSV).

What sayings? Jesus had informed his disciples, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9.22; NRSV). As Jesus was praying, his face was changed, his clothes became dazzling white, and two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glory and talked with Jesus of his departure which would soon take place in Jerusalem. Although sleepy (this must have been at night) Peter, James, and John had remained awake. They witnessed Jesus’ glory along with that of Moses and Elijah. Just as Moses and Elijah were leaving, Peter offered to build three booths. Perhaps he was hoping to keep them there; the account tells us that Peter did not really know what he was saying. I suspect if we had witnessed this event, we also would not have known how to respond. As Peter was making this statement, a cloud overshadowed them; they were terrified as the cloud enveloped them. Matthew (17.5) tells us the cloud was bright. Then a voice came from the cloud, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9.35; NRSV).

Again, we have prayer, a physical manifestation, and the voice of God. At the baptism, the voice, addressed to Jesus, said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3.22; NRSV). At the transfiguration, God’s voice addressed the disciples – “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

Each of these epiphanies provide us with marvelous insight into God’s grace – in the baptism the Father tells the Son that he is well pleased; in the miracle at Cana, God’s grace provides for the guests at a wedding; in the synagogue, God’s grace fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy, while making it clear that grace extends to all; and in the transfiguration, God’s grace prepares Jesus for Jerusalem..

But we are not yet done with this reading from the Gospel of Luke. The second part of the reading is optional, yet I believe it completes the story. Apparently Jesus, Peter, James, and John spent the night on the mountain, for the account continues, “On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him” (Luke 9.38; NRSV). The mountain top experience is over, and once again Jesus and the disciples are confronted by the needs of this world. A man’s son suffers a spirit who throws him to the ground, convulses him, makes him shriek and foam at the mouth! We now recognize these symptoms as classic signs of epilepsy. The other disciples had unsuccessfully tried to cure the boy; the father begged Jesus to look at him. Jesus told him to bring his son to him; while on the way he was once again seized. Jesus healed his son, gave him back to his father, and all were astonished at the greatness of God.

In addition to informing us of God’s grace and greatness, this story contains some powerful lessons.

First, things happen when we pray. Prayer opens the channel which allows God’s grace to flow into us. When we pray, we come to see the glory of God of which St. Paul speaks, and as he says, we “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (1 Corinthians 3.18; NRSV).  When we are transformed, God’s grace continues to flow through us into the lives of those around us through ministry. St. Paul acknowledges the significance of our transformation from one degree of glory to another when he continues, “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God” (I Corinthians 4.1-2; NRSV).

Second, we all love a mountaintop experience – whether physical or spiritual – and we would like for it to continue. Perhaps the truly appealing part of our physical mountaintop experience is at heart spiritual. When in the mountains, I experience the call to worship. Leaving the mountains is always melancholic.

Third, we must recognize that the mountaintop experience is merely preparation for what is to come. Moses could not remain on Mt. Sinai; he had to deliver the tablets. After fleeing Jezebel, Elijah could not remain in his cave on Mt. Horeb, for God told him to return and anoint Hazael as king over Aram, to anoint Jehu as king over Israel, and to anoint Elisha as his own replacement. Jesus could not remain on the Mount of Transfiguration, for he had to finish the ministry God had begun – the cross and the resurrection were calling.

This is why the second part of our Gospel reading is so important. It calls us from mountaintop to ministry! It serves to remind us that prayer is preparation for what lies ahead – perhaps that is why we are reluctant to truly pray. At some level of our sub-conscious, do we know that prayer may be dangerous? Do we know that we may be transformed in God’s image from one degree of glory to another? Do we know that this will dramatically change the world as we experience it? Only the courageous pray!

God usually has to bring us to our knees through allowing some set of adverse circumstances to touch our lives. These adverse circumstances, which we are prone to curse, to rail against, may simply be God’s mercy at work in our lives. In the midst of such adversity, just as with Elijah, it is not unusual to visit the mountaintop, but let us remember, this is merely the preparation for what lies ahead. We are being prepared for ministry to a world that is broken, bleeding, and begging. During Lent, let us pray; let us “listen to him” as God commanded; let us be courageous and faithful!

 

Amen

 

Sermon, November 29, 2015

Saturday, December 19th, 2015

Sermon.11.29.15.Advent1

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Jeremiah 33.14-16; Psalm 25.1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13; Luke 21.25-36

 

While conducting my research for this sermon, I encountered the following thought-provoking characterizations of Advent.

 

  • “Advent is a season for feeling out of kilter… a period of waiting in the darkness. It is a season in which we are caught between joyful expectation and the harsh realities of the present condition while we wait for the promise to be fulfilled. . . . In Advent, we live in the unsettling tension between what is and what will be” (Anne Stewart: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2693 ).

 

  • “Advent invites us to name the places in our lives and society that are at odds with the divine vision of justice and righteousness . . . Advent is a process of looking to Christ’s birth and the inauguration of his kingdom on earth” (Anne Osdieck: http://liturgy.slu.edu/1AdvC112915/reflections_osdieck.html ).

 

 

  • “Advent is a time of preparation for Christ’s coming—yes, his first, but also, and perhaps even more, his second. So the season of Advent is not a time of high festivities; we’re not yet celebrating “The Holidays.” It is a time of sober reflection aimed at growing in holiness; we should treat the days of Advent as “holy days” (Stan Mast: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-1c-2/?type=lectionary_epistle ).

 

During this awkward in-between time we are in the Church calls us apart to wait, to reflect upon a promise, to pray, to anticipate the coming of Jesus’ birth as celebrated in Christmas, and to hope for Christ’s Second Coming wherein all things shall be renewed. We are called apart from the bustling activity of shopping for a Christmas tree and gifts, from decorating, from attending parties and open houses. How do the readings for today reflect the spirit of Advent?

Jeremiah 33.14-16 follows the prophecy that God “will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel, and rebuild them as they were at first” (Jer. 33.7; NRSV). Jerusalem, to God, will be “a name of joy” and once more shall be heard “the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing” (Jer. 33.9-11; NRSV). Jeremiah proclaimed the impending destruction of Jerusalem, but assured the people that God’s promised restoration would follow. Furthermore, God would “cause a righteous branch to spring up for David, a branch that would “execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer. 33.15; NRSV). In Hebrew, justice (“Mishpat”) and righteousness (“Tzedekah”) are related but they denote different things. Mishpat concerns practices and processes for reconciling and restoring broken relationships among the people, the king, and God. Tzedakah is more concerned with one’s personal character and integrity; one is adjudged righteous when one’s character and actions reflects the attributes of God’s character. Mishpat fixes, mends and restores, while Tzedakah sustains what has been restored. Hence, Jeremiah was assuring the people of God’s ultimate restoration and continued sustenance and exhorting them to live in character with God’s attributes (Chesser, et. al.: http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/first-sunday-of-advent-year-c ).

Psalm 25 tells us more about the development of character, about training in righteousness, about living into the attributes of God. The Psalmist pleads (as should we): “Show me your ways, O LORD, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long” (Vs. 3-4; NRSV).      As the LORD is ‘gracious and upright . . . he teaches sinners in his way. He guides the humble in doing right, and teaches his way to the lowly” (Vs. 7-8; NRSV). The Psalmist confesses that this development does not take place overnight, and rarely occurs in one’s youth. Thus the Psalmist pleads with God, “Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD” (Vs. 6; NRSV).

The theme of teaching, learning, developing character also appears in the reading from 1 Thessalonians: “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith” (Vs. 10; NRSV). Paul desired personal one-on-one instruction and exhortation. He prays, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (Vs. 12-13; NRSV). To put it more tersely, recognize our love for you, and in response, grow in love that you may be found holy and blameless at the Second Coming. Christian character development, the development of righteousness, is best cultivated and nourished in love; the attribute of God’s character God would most have us emulate is God’s love. When we can truly love, we will be righteous and will act righteously.

Immediately prior to our reading from Luke 21, Jesus speaks of the horrible impending desolation of Jerusalem, a desolation which occurred in 70 C.E. when the armies of Rome quashed the Jewish revolt. In verse 24, Jesus notes that “Jerusalem will be trampled upon by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (NRSV). Jesus then speaks of events which will precede the coming of the Son of Man, which we commonly interpret to be the Second Coming of Christ – heavenly signs in the sun, moon, and stars and distress among the nations. People will faint from fear. What are we Christians to do in the midst of such times and signs? We are to “stand up and raise” our heads for our “redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21. 28; NRSV). Jesus then tells them of the signs of the fig tree and all trees – when one sees buds, one knows that summer is near. When we see the signs, the portents, we should recognize that the kingdom of God is near.

Jesus went on to state, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place” (Luke 21.32; NRSV). How are we to understand this statement? If Jesus was referring to the destruction of Jerusalem, then the statement is true. But if Jesus was referring to the Second Coming, it appears to be false. N. T. Wright has suggested this passage may not refer to the Second Coming of Christ, but may rather focus on Jesus’ prophetic realization that continued attempts at military rebellion would only bring about the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem (http://girardianlectionary.net/year_c/advent1c.htm ). If we understand the statement as referring to Christ’s enthronement at the right hand of God, then again, it is true. If we are to interpret this passage as referring to the Second Coming of Christ, we must disconnect it from Jesus’ prophecy that not one stone of the Temple would be left upon another and that when Jerusalem is seen to be surrounded by armies, one would know that its desolation is near (Luke 21.6, 20; NRSV).

At any rate, the important thing is that we be prepared for such calamitous times – for times when we experience terrorist attacks on innocent people, the beheading of Christians by the Daesh, millions of refugees being denied entrance to other nations on the basis of fear and racism, and the downing of a Russian aircraft by Turkey. Jesus told the people, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21.34-35; NRSV).

And now we come back to character grounded in righteousness, grounded in the love of God and our fellow neighbor. If we are going to develop the character of righteousness, we must remember and affirm our baptismal vows; “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?…Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?…Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?” (BCP, p. 302).

Having renounced these things, we see the importance of Paul’s prayer: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (Vs. 12-13; NRSV). Our love is a reflection of our holiness. As 1 John 4.17-20 tells us, “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

Let’s reflect on the words of the Collect: “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”

 

Sermon, December 6, 2015

Saturday, December 19th, 2015

Sermon.12.06.15

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Baruch 5.1-9; Canticle 4; Philippians 1.3-11; Luke 3.1-6

The story of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John is a beautiful story! Canticle 4 only tells a portion of the story. Let’s back up a bit and examine the context more fully.

Once upon a time in the days of King Herod there was a priest named Zechariah. His wife, Elizabeth, was a descendant of Aaron. As they kept all the commandments, loving God and their neighbor, they were righteous before God. From all appearances, their life was good except for one thing – they had no children, and they were getting older. They had been praying for a child for some time.

When Zechariah was performing his priestly duty of offering incense before the Lord, an angel of the Lord appeared at the right side of the altar. Like virtually everyone else who has ever seen an angel, Zechariah was terrified; fear overwhelmed him.

But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1.13-15; NRSV).

Now Zechariah was doubtful; he wanted assurance. Zechariah asked how he could be assured this would take place and reminded the angel that he and Elizabeth were quite old. The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur” (Luke 1.19-20: NRSV). When Zechariah came out from the altar and stood before the people, he could not speak.

Elizabeth soon conceived. In due time, she delivered a child. Her relatives and the neighbors heard of God’s mercy and they rejoiced with her. On the eight day, they came to circumcise the child; they were going to name him Zechariah after his father, but Elizabeth told them, “No, he is to be called John” (Luke 1.60; NRSV) which means “God is gracious.” The relatives reminded Elizabeth that no one in their family was named “John,” and they began to question Zechariah. He asked for a tablet and wrote, “His name is John” (Luke 1.63; NRSV). The people were amazed but they had not seen anything yet. John’s speech was restored and he immediately began praising God. The people were filled with fear and began to wonder what the child would become. Zechariah was then filled with the Holy Spirit, and spoke the prophecy we read as Canticle 4.

The prophecy is a beautiful song which has been used in worship across the millennia. It begins with words of praise: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David” (Luke 1.68-69; NRSV). Zechariah further recounts how God has shown mercy, fulfilled God’s covenant, and rescued the people from the hands of their enemies that they might serve God “without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1.75; NRSV). And then, Zechariah sets forth God’s plan for John: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1.76-79; NRSV). Note that the knowledge of salvation comes through the forgiveness of sins. This is unlike most knowledge, for it is experiential knowledge which comes from a relationship with Jesus Christ. Luke then tells us “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel” (Luke 1.80; NRSV).

John, “The Prophet of the Most High,” was the last in a long line of prophets who heralded the First Advent of Christ. In the Old Testament, the prophets were frequently set within the context of the times and the rule of kings. For example, in Isaiah 6, the call of Isaiah, we read, “In the year that King Uzziah died…” (Vs. 1; NRSV). Likewise, Jeremiah begins as follows: “The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the LORD came in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. It came also in the days of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of King Zedekiah son of Josiah of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month” (Jeremiah 1.1-3; NRSV).

In establishing the significance of John as a prophet, Luke uses the same formula: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3.1-2; NRSV).

This common formula used to announce the coming of a prophet accomplished two things: first, it served to acknowledge the worldly powers and principalities of the time and it served notice of a new order which God was establishing on earth. In John’s case, this new order was announced to the region around the Jordan River – it was an order “proclaiming a baptism of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins” as announced by the prophet Isaiah. John the Baptist was “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’” (Luke 3.4-6; NRSV).

So how does all of this relate to you and me? What significance does it have for us?

First, John proclaimed a baptism of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins. Last week, we noted the renunciations required during our baptism – renunciations which would promote righteousness: “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?…Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?…Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?” (BCP, p. 302). Baptism also calls us to affirmation and commitment: “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? … Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? … Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?” In Advent we need to once again consider the implications of these renunciations, affirmations, and commitments. Baptism invites us to participate in Incarnation – it leads us to new life in Christ.

Second, we must remember that the Incarnation was not just a one-time historical event; it is also an ongoing process through which Christ’s presence becomes more and more manifest in our own being and actions, and hopefully, in our social structures and cultural practices. Are we experiencing the blessings of Christ’s incarnation in our own lives? Blessings which come from preparing the way of the Lord, from having our valleys filled and our mountains made low, from having our crooked paths made straight and our rough places made smooth, from seeing and experiencing the salvation of God? Preparing the way of the Lord demands that we question injustice and oppression. Preparing the way of the Lord demands that we confront exploitation of natural resources by the rich and the powerful and the resulting degradation of our environment and habitat. Preparing the way of the Lord calls us to consider St. Paul’s mission and witness. Preparing the way of the Lord calls us to love God and our neighbor, to live in the imitation of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. All of these practices promote the presence of God’s kingdom – the way of the Lord.

Third, like Zechariah, our experience of God’s mercy and majesty should at times leave us speechless. When we can’t talk, we tend to listen more. And who would not benefit from listening more closely to God? Advent is a time to watch, listen, and pray – a time to hope for new life within us. It’s time to prepare the way of the Lord!

Amen

 

Sermon, December 13, 2015

Saturday, December 19th, 2015

Sermon.12.13.15
St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort

Zephaniah 3.14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18

Our opening hymn called us to “rejoice”. Today’s readings are about joy! It is Gaudete Sunday – Joy Sunday! What is all this joy about? And for that matter, what is joy? How does one experience joy? Some have facetiously said, “Joy is a blue-eyed blonde!” Maybe. Maybe not.

 

Merriam-Webster defines “joy” as “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires” (http://beta.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/joy). Couldn’t that definition also apply to happiness? Yet, I suspect most of us would agree that happiness and joy are two different things. To get a better sense of the meaning of joy, listen to these quotations:

 

Rumi, the Islamic scholar and Sufi mystic said, “When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a revered Christian mystic, said, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”

Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian, Hindu poet and mystical writer, said: ““I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”

Mother Teresa, a Christian mystic, said: “A joyful heart is the normal result of a heart burning with love. She gives most who gives with joy.”

Mark Twain, who had a lesser opinion of religion than the above, said: “To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with.”

 

Unlike most other emotions, it appears that joy is spiritually grounded. One who pursues joy for the sake of joy will likely find that joy eludes her grasp. Like happiness, joy appears to be a byproduct of some other activity – doubly reflected activity in that it reflects the best of the human spirit, which in turn is a reflection of God’s Spirit – of God’s light shining forth from within us. Those who know God should be privy to an awareness of this double-reflection; those who do not know God may experience joy, but may not be aware of its doubly reflected nature.

 

How do our readings reflect joy? Zephaniah was a prophet during the reign of King Josiah in Jerusalem. Like Amos, he prophesied the coming of the “Day of the LORD,” the day when God would judge the nations. The book of Zephaniah is only three chapters; the portion we read today is the good news portion. The rest of the book is pretty grim.

 

The advent of God’s presence is cause for rejoicing. Despite God’s judgment, God promises to leave a remnant – “a people humble and lowly” (Zeph. 3.12; NRSV). It is they who will sing aloud and shout; it is they who will “rejoice and exult with all” their heart, for God has taken away their judgment. God rejoices over them with gladness and renews them in God’s love (Zeph. 3.14-17; NRSV).

 

In Canticle 9, from Isaiah 12, we read a psalm of praise for God’s deliverance. As a result of this deliverance, the people “shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation” (Isaiah 12.3) The people will sing praises for the great things God has done; the inhabitants of Zion will “ring out” their joy (Isaiah 12.5-6).

 

In Philippians 4, St. Paul tells us to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again…Rejoice.” Gaudete Sunday is so named on the basis of this reading. Paul assures us “the Lord is near.” Consequently, we are not to worry. We are to make our requests known to God in prayer with thanksgiving and supplication. In doing so, we are given the peace of God which surpasses all understanding and we are assured that God will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

 

And in Luke, John the Baptist takes the people to task: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” From this statement, it is apparent that John believed Jesus was coming into the world to judge the world and usher in the Messianic reign. When this did not happen, John sent word from prison asking Jesus if he was the Messiah. John was expecting a very different Messiah from the sort Jesus turned out to be.

 

John further told the crowd to bear fruit worthy of repentance, that is, love, joy, peace, longsuffering, etc.; he further warned that every tree which does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

 

Three groups come to John: the common people, tax collectors, and soldiers. The people asked, “What then should we do” (Luke 3. 10; NRSV). The message is clear! “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3.11; NRSV).

 

Luke then tells us the tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked, “Teacher, what should we do” (Luke 3. 12; NRSV). Imagine that! John’s preaching must have had quite an impact! The tax collectors were Jews hired by the Roman Empire; they had to pay the taxes up front, then collect taxes from the people. This means they were very wealthy. If the tax collectors could collect more than was required, they could pocket the surplus. “Teacher, what must we do? … “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you” (Luke 3.13; NRSV).

 

And the soldiers asked, “And we, what should we do” (Luke 3. 14; NRSV). And John tells them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages” (Luke 3.14; NRSV). In other words, do not abuse your power for personal gain.

 

John called the people to repentance that righteousness and peace might abound. What is the message for us? If we have more than we need, we are to share that others may have what they need. And if we are in positions of power, as were the tax collectors and the soldiers, we are not to use our power in ways that create poverty. If we believe, and if we repent, we must act as though we believe and have repented – we must bear good fruit.

 

As John was aware the people were wondering if he was the Messiah, he told them, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals” (Luke 3. 16; NRSV). In other words, “I am not even worthy to be his slave.” John continues, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3. 16-17; NRSV). Then Luke ends the passage with this statement: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people” (Luke 3. 18; NRSV).

 

Being baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire may be good news, but what about that “unquenchable fire” bit? The fire of the Spirit is unquenchable. This is good news! Our chaff is burned away that we may be pure wheat.

 

I love the way John Foley, S.J. comments on the nature of joy in relation to this passage:

 

God’s gladness sings out joyfully at every instant, and his song is the earth, the galaxies, the people and plants and chemicals and soaring hawks and encircling planets, droplets of dew and heavy black holes, youthful beauties, ancient wisdoms, and everything else that exists.

 

We are God’s song. … People in long rows gather to be baptized in expectation of the Savior who is to come. Each segment (the crowd, the tax collectors, the soldiers) ask John the Baptist the exact same question: “Teacher, what should we do?”

 

“Let your life sing,” he answers.

 

Let it sing.

 

Let your life be what it is: God’s joyous, interleaved and always consonant melody, sounding outwards in deepest joy. Share your cloak and your food, collect only what is owed, do not extort, do these things and you will be sounding the true melody of your life.

 

 

 

When you sing from your soul, you feel God’s presence in you, and you experience joy – deep and wondrous joy. Advent is a reason to sing for joy.

 

Amen

Landscaping Review

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

Landscaping at St Paul’s Reduces the Church’s Carbon Footprint

 St Paul’s has been “greening” since 2003.  Greening means renewing our commitment to Creation Care through education, reflection, and action.  Significant conservation actions have taken place inside the church (e.g., energy efficiency, recycling, etc) and outside the church (e.g., landscaping).

These activities help the church appearance and finances – yes, but a larger goal is to educate Parishioners, visitors and neighbors about what can be done in their own homes and yards for conservation.

Energy Use in Buildings

The most significant program to date inside the church buildings (church and rectory) was relamping – conversion of fluorescent and incandescent light to more energy efficient lighting.  We enrolled in the EPA’s Energy Star Congregations Network, and small energy projects are ongoing (weather strips, HVAC maintenance, caulking, etc).  We were recognized as a Cool Congregation by Interfaith Power and Light in 2011 for the relamping project.             http://www.interfaithpowerandlight.org/2011/12/cool-congregations-winners-announced/

In addition to the lighting project, we further lowered our “carbon footprint” at the rectory by installing new storm windows (28 windows), upgrading the heating and cooling system to a heat pump, insulating brick walls that were exposed during remodeling, and making other small energy-saving improvements.

An unkempt lawn at the front of the church is now an attractive garden; much admired by passersby on 6th Street, and by pollinators (e.g., insects like butterflies and bees).

Landscaping has several goals

On the church grounds, we are finishing a 4-yr project to further reduce our carbon footprint by converting lawn to urban wildlife habitat.  An important part of the landscaping project is to provide contemplative gardens where people can appreciate The Creation (i.e., at least the aspects of nature that can be demonstrated in our small urban setting).

The landscaping project is focusing on three areas of the Parish grounds 1) front yard conversion of grass to native flowers and shrubs, 2) back yard conversion of grass to patio and gardens, and 3) gardening for wildlife throughout.  Most of the work has been done by volunteers who consider their time, talent and treasure as an “environmental tithe.”

The landscaping project had two overall goals 1) reduce carbon footprint, and 2) garden for wildlife.  The gardening for wildlife theme was made possible by funding from the Ralph Town Memorial (Ralph was a retired U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist).

Southwest corner of 900 ft2 patio and rose garden showing arbors that will support vines for hummingbirds, pollinators and other urban wildlife.  An important part of the landscaping project is creating places for people too!

Wildlife habitat with people too!

When the plantings and gardens  mature, they will have four key components of wildlife habitat 1) water, 2) food, 3) places to raise young, and 4) places to rest (as prescribed by the National Wildlife Federation’s Gardening for Wildlife Program (http://www.nwf.org/How-to-Help/Garden-for-Wildlife.aspx).

We are creating habitat for pollinators, butterflies, and birds, although small mammals such as bats, rabbits and squirrels also frequent the grounds.  Native plants were chosen because they are native to this region (e.g., cone flower, blue stem) and are drought tolerant.  Plantings provide four habitat complexes (e.g., open lawn, vertical vines, short shrubs, trees) and several types of food (e.g., berries, nectar, fruits). Artificial structures (e.g., bird baths) provide water in summer and winter.  Places to raise young (bird houses, bee houses, bat houses) have been added (or are planned).  We plan to feed birds in winter. (http://blog.nwf.org/2010/12/ten-simple-tips-for-successful-winter-bird-feeding/).

The ultimate goals of the “greening” projects at St Paul’s are education and inspiration.  Wildlife gardens included contemplative venues for people to pause and appreciate the “Natural Cathedral.”  Information about the wonder of nature and Earth stewardship is included in Parish newsletters (The Messenger) and special events (e.g., Ecopalms on Palm Sunday, Earth Day Sunday, Rogation Day, Beating of the Bounds).  The landscaping project includes a tulip garden that will demonstrate the fun and values of observing nature as a Citizen Scientist, and help educate about the complimentary roles of religion and science in our lives

http://www.learner.org/jnorth/tulip/index.html

[St Paul’s is the only tulip test garden in South Dakota, see map on web site above]

 Landscaping reduces carbon footprint and pollution

In addition to the advantages for urban wildlife and appearance of the church grounds, the conversion of lawn to gardens, patios, seating areas, and walkways will reduce St Paul’s use of water, energy, and herbicides, and reduce air pollution from mowers.  Following is how we calculated our energy and pollution savings through landscaping.

Lawn watering uses water and energy (e.g., embedded energy of pumping and purifying).  We converted about 1,800 ft2 of lawn to garden and other uses.  We estimate we will save about 1,248 gallons of water, which amounts to reducing our carbon footprint for water energy use by 2.8 pounds of CO2/year.  The calculation method is described in:

http://www.rivernetwork.org/water-energy-toolkit-understanding-carbon-footprint-your-water.

We will mow eight hours less/year with a riding lawnmower that consumes about 0.5 gallons of gas/hour, thus saving another 70.8 pounds of CO2/year (We used this equation: Footprint = (gas used) x (17.7 pounds of carbon per gallon) .

A gas mower produces volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides emissions in one hour of operation equal to that of 11 cars each being driven for one hour.  Because we mow 8 hours less than before gardens were installed, we have reduced pollution equal to that of 88 trips to Sioux Falls (a 1 hour drive).

http://www.peoplepoweredmachines.com/faq-environment.htm#pollutant

For the remaining lawn, we follow a policy of “cut it high and let in lie,” which is a cliché summarizing the fundamentals of ecological lawn care that improves the turf while reducing weeds, watering, and mowing time.             http://pubstorage.sdstate.edu/AgBio_Publications/articles/EXEX6030.pdf

The patio is made with porous pavers thus reducing runoff.  Water use will be further reduced when we install a rain barrel for watering the rose garden.  Conversion from evergreen to deciduous trees on the south side of the church increases the efficiency of passive solar radiation for heating and cooling the church (one large spruce was replaced with a red oak).

Although St Paul’s energy impacts are small, the savings may be increased when Parishioners, visitors and neighbors learn about and see the benefits of landscaping with ecological goals (see how the church savings of about 75 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere relates to greenhouse gas emissions from other sources at             http://www.epa.gov/cleanenergy/energy-resources/calculator.html#results).

Inspiration and Outreach

Environmental problems sometimes seem so big that we think that there is nothing we can do, but there are everyday decisions an individual makes to help our society walk more gently on the Earth.

The inspiration of St Paul’s landscaping project comes from Psalm 19 that says in effect that “the Lord speaks through two works, the Bible and the masterpiece of Creation.”  Further, we are to serve and preserve The Creation – God’s Garden (Genesis 2:15).  “God has no hands but our hands” to do this work, but we must improve our understanding of the moral imperative to do so.  We have hope (active hope) that St Paul’s Creation Care program will contribute in a small way toward a transformative change in stewardship of the Earth.

St Paul’s began an outreach effort in 2013 that is extending these stewardship ideas beyond the Parish to the Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota (80 churches, https://www.diocesesd.org/).  A Creation Care workshop at the 2014 Diocesan Convention was organized by St Paul’s Natural Cathedral Committee.  Ten churches have joined the Creation Care Network proposed by St Paul’s – the grass-roots project is growing! (See page 4 in:

https://www.diocesesd.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/NovDec14.pdf.)

This Creation Care “mission” at St Paul’s is symbolized in three new stained glass windows installed in 2014.  The window is a memorial to Dr. Ruth Alexander who championed Creation Care (among many other services to the church).  The window sends the message of Faith, Hope and Love in a landscape featuring a bed of Pasque flowers (the South Dakota State Flower) and butterflies (unique in that they are in relief or 3D).

St Paul’s youth hold the earth in their hands on Earth Day Sunday as they surround Ruth Alexander, an early advocate of “the greening of St Paul’s.”