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Exodus 34: 1-8
Phillipians 2: 9-13 or Romans 1: 1-7
Luke 2: 15-21
A preacher in Georgia once had this to say about Jesus: “He did not come to put us to shame with his divinity. He came to call us into the fullness of our humanity, which was good enough for him.” (Barbara Brown Taylor — God In Pain). Human life is important to God. Individual humans are important to God. Human activities are important to God. In fact, all of those things are so important to God that God freely became an individual human and participated in all the common activities associated with that particular human — Jesus of Nazareth. Today we celebrate two of those common human activities: the naming of a child, and the circumcision of a child.
The naming of a child is usually an important decision for the parents. They come up with lists of names and then come up with new lists of names and then come up with other lists of names, until eventually they settle on a name or two or three to give the child. Our gospel story tells us that Mary and Joseph were spared all the work of choosing a name for their child, since an angel had already said that he was to be called Jesus. Where I grew up in Texas, Jesus was a common name, although most of the Hispanic boys in my school with that name usually went by a nickname like Chuy or Beto or Junior. It was only on the first day of school when the class roll was called that you heard their real names (usually mispronounced by the Anglo teacher as Geezus instead of Haysoos). The name Jesus is not all that uncommon up here in the midwest, either, although most of the time it is pronounced Joshua, which is simply the anglicized version of the real semitic form of Jesus. The name Jesus (in its semitic form) was not all that uncommon in Jesus’ time, either. There are several Jesuses in the Bible. Some English translations have them as Jesus, some as Joshua. In fact, the prisoner who was released instead of Jesus by Pilate was named Jesus Barabbas, which means Jesus Son of the Father.
A common human name was good enough for God.
The circumcision of a child — a male child — is also an important decision for the parents. Now days the matter to be decided is “should we or shouldn’t we”. Once again, Mary and Joseph were spared this decision because in their time and place, it was simply the thing to do. It was a common, although quite meaningful human activity, and it was good enough for God. The circumcision of Jesus also shows us that Jesus had all his human parts.
A common human body was good enough for God.
If we keep reading the gospel after the section we heard today, we hear a little about Jesus’ childhood and adolescence. Not many details are given, but twice in this chapter Luke mentions that Jesus kept growing. A common childhood and adolescence seem to have been good enough for God, also, and even though his later years were a little extraordinary, they were lived out in the ordinary society of the time and place. In fact, if we really believe it when we say that Jesus is fully God and fully human, we are saying that we believe that every human bodily function, every human urge and desire, and every human fear, joy, pleasure, and pain were experienced by God in Jesus. All of those things belonged to Jesus, and therefore they belong to God. Since whatever belongs to God is holy, then all of human life is holy — every bodily function, every urge and desire, and every fear, joy, pleasure, and pain. Because of the creation, we bear God’s image — because of the incarnation, God bears our image. We are doubly holy.
We are also doubly responsible for treating ourselves and each other as the holy beings that we are. We must take care of our holy human bodies, as well as our holy human spirits and souls. Our bodies, minds, emotions, and spirits need proper care to function as best as they can. Our intellectual, sexual, social, and family lives must never be forgotten, abused, or neglected. Mistreatment or improper use of any parts of our lives degrades their holiness and lessens us and the entire human race. We don’t always seem all that holy to ourselves or to others, but that’s because although we are holy, we are human, and humans grow. Our holiness must grow, and in order to grow it must be fostered and cultivated with love. As the years and decades of cultivating our holiness roll by, we will seem ever so slightly more holy.
More importantly, as our holiness grows, we see the holiness in others more clearly. We begin to realize that our immature ideas of holiness might have been wrong, and we realize that even though others are different from us they are holy, nonetheless. However, even before we reach total maturity in Christ, we are obliged to treat every other person we meet as the doubly holy image of God that they are created to be, whether or not they are growing in that image, or are stagnant, or even actively trying to erase the image of God from their lives. That is not an easy task, treating everyone as the holy image of God. It is hard work, and we fail at it a lot of the time. We all need to work at it, every day and every hour. We can grow only with God’s help, but we still need to put that help to work, through prayer, meditation, honest self-examination, and other disciplines. Fortunately, we have an example of growth and holiness set before us in the particular, common human life of Jesus of Nazareth. As that preacher in Georgia said: “He did not come to put us to shame with his divinity. He came to call us into the fullness of our humanity, which was good enough for him.”
May we all grow in our holy human lives, while encouraging and helping others to grow. May we see the holiness of God in every person we meet, and treat them accordingly. And may the doubly holy images of God that we are created to be grow ever brighter, spreading the love, peace, and joy of heaven to the entire world. AMEN
Our gospel story this morning is about two pregnant women (relatives) who greet each other. The women are affected by each other’s presence; they both say things that are now some of the most quoted verses from the Bible. The children in their wombs are also affected by each other’s presence (at least the one in Elizabeth’s womb is excited about the one in Mary’s womb), and they would have more influence on each other as they grew up: Jesus and John the Baptist.
The story is good for us to remember, because we are also influenced by what is inside the people around us, and what is inside us influences the people around us. Of course, we are not our thoughts and we are not our emotions – we can not take the credit or the blame for our psychological makeups. But we can foster some of our internal habits and dilute others. We need to choose wisely the ones we will foster and the ones we will dilute, and some will take a lot of work and effort to dilute and will always be with us as constant nagging sores, but that is no reason to give up working on them. Difficult and impossible are not the same. And we shouldn’t compare ourselves and our internal habits with anyone else – just because a person seems to have no problems on the outside does not mean he is not struggling on the inside.
It takes a lifetime of work to foster our helpful internal habits like compassion and love and dilute the harmful ones like greed and fear, but it is worth the effort, because doing so helps not only us, but also the people around us. Our thoughts influence our actions. Like anything else in life, our internal happenings will be a series of ups and downs. When we find ourselves in a period of being controlled by our harmful internal patterns like selfishness or judgmentalism, we simply need to acknowledge it and do what we can do to change it – no need to condemn ourselves – that is never productive. Then we can get on with the work of fostering our helpful patterns like joy and tolerance.
The women in our gospel story were both carrying children conceived by miraculous means, but once they were pregnant, they did have to take care of what was in their wombs so that the children could be born healthy. We also need to take care of our God-given helpful internal habits so that they can become stronger and so we can eventually bring them out as actions that help others – much as the children inside Elizabeth and Mary were brought forth from them to help the people around them. We can take care of our God-given internal habits such as kindness and cooperation by using the time honored classical disciplines of prayer, scripture reading, obedience, and constancy. Then, slowly but surely, we will actually start acting out those helpful habits and so become a blessing to ourselves and the people around us.
It wasn’t easy for Elizabeth and Mary, and it won’t be easy for us. But it is worth it. We will often fail, but that’s ok. We fall down, we get back up again. God is always there, picking us up and pouring grace into us. We just have to take his gifts and bring them out to the world around us. AMEN
The healing of Bartimaeus the blind man that we heard in our gospel story this morning is not the most dramatic healing Jesus has done. Healing our own blindness is a much bigger job, because we are blind in a much deeper way than merely being unable to see with our eyes. Jesus brings light to our inner darkness, and that darkness is caused by our own sin.
We have lost our way because we have put up barriers between ourselves and God. We might not be notorious criminals or cruel monsters, but our own petty selfish deeds are just as effective at rejecting God as are bigger sins. If our constant thought is “me, me, me”, then we are not thinking “God, God, God”, or “others, others, others”, or “God, others, and me” (which is actually the best of the choices). All of that emphasis on ourselves turns us into little black holes, sucking everything into our own little circle and covering us in darkness. We cut ourselves off from God, and in so doing lose all stability, sense of direction, and ability to discern truth from falsehood.
Of course, we are not always in that state. We wax and wane in our relationship with God, who remains stable in his desire and love for us no matter our condition. In fact, God’s love and desire for us is so strong that God takes action to dispel the blindness that we bring on ourselves, and sometimes that action is much more dramatic than the healing of Bartimaeus. We might experience it as being humbled by another person’s comments or actions that finally make us admit our pettiness, or by witnessing an event that causes us to finally see our own selfishness, or by a time of prayer and scripture reading that brings to light our own darkness and the need for God’s help. Those instances are more common than the kind of healing that Bartimaeus got, but they are no less miraculous. They might seem easier than healing physical blindness, but God’s healing of our inner selves is actually a lot more miraculous than healing of our bodies.
But even after we do wake up to God’s light, we ought not to just keep staring at it, dazed and confused. We have a life to live in the sunshine of God’s love, and we need to grow to the point where we can share that light. We need to work to stop ourselves from once again putting up barriers between us and God – all those selfish little things that blinded us in the first place. Of course, we must not forget that even with the need for work on our part, the healing that we need comes only from God. Like the blind man in our gospel story, we need to stand by the side of the road and cry to Jesus for mercy, no matter how often the people around us discourage us from doing so, like they did to Bartimaeus. But then we need to take that mercy that God gives us and put it to use, being honest about the thoughts, words, and actions that hinder our relationship with God. We do those things, and they are no one’s fault but our own. They might be big or small, hidden or well known to others, but they are there all the same, keeping us blindly isolated in a dark shell of self-centeredness. May we always cry to God for mercy, asking for God’s strength to save us and bring us out of darkness in to light. May we never be discouraged when we fall back again into our pride and thoughtlessness (because we will fall back again and again), and may we never discourage others from crying out for mercy (like those people around Bartimaeus). We fall dawn, we get back up again, but God is always there offering sight and hope. God will have mercy, we just need to be humble enough to ask for it. AMEN
James 5: 13-20
Mark 9: 38-50
We sometimes forget the great, freeing truth of what we just heard Jesus say in our gospel story this morning: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”. He said it in response to John who told him a story about finding other people working in the name of Jesus who were not from their own group. Jesus makes it clear that he is quite alright with people doing good deeds in his name, no matter what group they are in. He also makes it quite clear that anyone doing bad deeds, even if that person is in his group of disciples (and therefore presumably doing it in his name), will be cursed.
So it seems that actions are the important things, and group membership is of secondary importance. We probably all know people who are either indifferent or even hostile to official Christianity and yet are some of the most Christ-like people on earth – theirs is the kingdom of heaven. And we also probably know church members who are some of the cruelest people on earth – theirs is the kingdom of hell.
None of that is to say that beliefs are unimportant or that orthodoxy has no value. They do have value, but only if we allow the Holy Spirit to use those tools to form us into loving people. If, on the other hand, we use them to form ourselves into hateful people, we are working against Jesus and against ourselves.
And even within the church around the world and throughout history, we ought not to be so quick to judge other groups because of their styles of worship or government, or the education levels or social classes of their members. The body of Christ is big and diverse, and many different denominations are needed to help everyone fit in the Body. The church would be impoverished without the gift of the multiplicity of denominations. However, we can and often do take that gift and twist it into opportunities for rivalry and bitterness between denominations – and the smaller the differences between denominations, the more bitter the fighting. No wonder the Holy Spirit gets tired of it all and so often chooses to work through non-Christians.
But we can change that. We can see other groups working in the name of Jesus and be happy and grateful for them. We can see other groups doing good things whether or not they do them in the name of Jesus and be happy and grateful for them. It is so much easier than getting upset (and so much less ridiculous). Then, maybe the Holy Spirit will think we are ready to do good works and will use us. How much better to be filled with the Holy Spirit than with jealousy and pettiness. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” It’s all about Jesus; it’s not about us. AMEN
Exodus 34: 29-35
II Peter 1: 13-21
Luke 9: 28-36
This morning’s Old Testament story of Moses’s face shining with glory after coming down from the mountain of God happens shortly after the incident of Aaron making the golden calf that was worshipped by the former slaves, causing Moses to smash the tablets of law that God gave him the first time they met on the mountain. This morning’s gospel story of Jesus shining with glory happens the day before his disciples fail to heal a boy of demon possession, a failure that Jesus attributes to their perverseness and lack of faith. So in these two stories, we have the glory of God shown both before and after major instances of human faithlessness.
Though not specifically stated in these scriptures, it could be inferred that the glory of God shining from Moses’s face was meant to reassure the people that even after their infidelity, God was still in their presence and was still guiding them. Similarly, it has often been assumed that the incident of Jesus’s transfiguration was meant to strengthen the disciples and prepare them for the crucifixion, even though they would be unfaithful many times before and after it.
So it is still with us. Like Aaron, we make our own gods out of the things we can accomplish, rather than trusting in the true God to guide us. And like the disciples, we often lack the faith to cast out the demons that hurt us and those around us. But even with all that faithlessness on our part, God still loves and cares for us, and gives us signs to strengthen us and reassure us of his presence in our lives. We may not see Moses or Jesus shining with glory, but we can, if we choose, see God’s glory in the wonderful universe around us. We can see God’s love and care for us in our family and friends, and even in strangers who treat us with kindness. Sometimes those signs are hard to see and understand, especially when it seems that the universe is being cruel to us, or when those around us abuse us or are lost to us.
That is why Jesus gives us another sign of God’s glorious presence in our lives. Every time we gather at the table up here, God shows his presence in our lives by feeding us with himself. We not only gather together with Jesus to share a meal with him, we partake of his being as he freely gives his body and blood to us. The very life of God is given to us, and since we gather together with others at the table, we are assured not only of God’s presence in our own lives, but also of God’s presence in the lives of all those who share in the meal. The meal we are about to consume at this table is not merely some kind of symbol of our life with Jesus (although it is that); it is a tangible conduit of his presence in us and in our world. We are what we eat, and as we partake of the life of Jesus, we grow ever more into his likeness as we take that likeness into our own small corner of the universe, bringing God’s shining glory to those who need it.
We will still be unfaithful many times before and after this meal, just like the people in our scripture readings. We might not be very good at seeing God’s glory shining on the faces of those who gather here with us, and they might not be able to see it in ours. But the more we know the glory is there, the more apt we are to see it and show it to others. We will fail many times at seeing and showing God’s glory, but that must not stop us from our slow growth in trying to do so. The glory is not our own, it is God’s, but it is freely given to us. May we take it with joy and assurance that, instead of the short glimpses that we catch now every once in a while, one day we will see it fully and forever. AMEN
II Kings 4:42-44
We have so much already, and God wants to give us more. The only thing stopping us from receiving all that God has for us is our own stubbornness in wanting something other than what God gives. God gives us the universe, but we want so much less.
Yes, the world is full people who have no food, no house, no clean water, no reliable compassionate government. The reason that is so is because somewhere down the line, someone or someones have not gratefully received what God has given them and have instead greedily and fearfully taken more than they needed, keeping it from other people who do need it. Natural disasters can happen, but most often human want and misery is caused by other humans.
That is completely unnecessary. There is no need for fear or greed. God gives us the universe. But, we want so much less, so we create misery in the world. We all do it to some extent – we are all caught in the web of sin and we all contribute to the web of sin.
But we can all do things to untangle the web of sin. Jesus, of course, has ultimately dissolved it, but right now we are still feeling its effects. We know we can all give to charity organizations and volunteer to help people and vote responsibly and recycle and waste less. But we can also be good to the people around us – cleaning up our messes and griping less about petty things and sharing work.
We can’t save the whole world all at once – that is God’s job and he has already done it – but we can make our little corner of the world better and we can make the entire world a little better with the help of others around the world. Like the gospel story, we can give our fish and bread and let God take care of the rest. We can let go of fear and greed and, as Paul says in our second reading this morning: “be filled with all the fullness of God.”
It is not easy. We are like the disciples in the boat – worried about life and even more worried when we see Jesus coming toward us because we know that he will ask us to do something that we think can’t possibly do us any good.
Of course, what he asks us is the only thing that can do us any good: fear not, share your bread and fishes, let God fill you. AMEN
II Corinthians 4:13-5:1
The story we heard in our first reading from the book of Genesis has always puzzled me. We heard only a part of it, but the whole thing is familiar to most people: God puts the first humans in a garden and lets them eat anything but the fruit of one tree (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), but the humans eat it (they are convinced to do so by a talking serpent), and so are thrown out of the garden. The parts that puzzle me are basically everything in the story, but especially: why did God put that tree there if it was so important that they not eat it? and why did God not want them to have the knowledge of good and evil? The first question is easily answered by saying that it is a Bible story, so we should expect weird things like that.
The second question is what has really always bothered me – a lot. Why did God not want them (and by them I mean us) to have the choice between good and evil? Did God really want a race of infants? Did God want to protect us from ourselves or from others (and even so, could God not have protected innocent people from evil and yet still allowed others to choose it?) Wasn’t it really a good thing that they disobeyed and in so doing made us more fully human by allowing us to be free moral agents? Isn’t it really better for God to have creatures who can chose to do good rather than creatures who have no choice but to do good (and is that really good anyway?)?
I sure am glad that they disobeyed God. Maybe that is what God wanted all along and was finally relieved and overjoyed that after so many prehistoric eons his children finally decided to grow up and look at the world around them (one might say that was not only the day we grew up, but also the day we were born). Of course, we do not yet see the world as it really is, but we have a better view of it now than before the fruit was eaten. Of course, we do not always choose good, but at least now we have a choice, and so when we do choose to not do evil, it really is good.
The Fall (as the tree incident is often called) was not the only day that humans were born or grew up. We have had many births: creation, fall, Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost are all birthdays for the human race as we slowly grow into our vocations as Children of God. In the story this morning, they all blamed each other for what happened. The same thing happens to us – people do things that cause us troubles, but those troubles (as bad as they can be and even if they are not our own fault) can all be catalysts for further growth. When those bad things happen, (just like in the story) God finds us, clothes us, and puts us somewhere we can get to work, never letting us go back to what we knew before. Of course, unlike in the story, God does not force all of that on us now – we can go on living sadly in our broken paradises if we so choose. Or, we can look at what has happened, see the good and the evil (like eating from the tree), and use all of that to grow. It is not easy, but years later it does make for a good story, just like in the Bible. AMEN
I Corinthians 11:23-29
There have been too many quarrels about how the bread and wine that is used at celebrations of the Lord’s Supper is or becomes the body and blood of Christ. It is difficult to see much good that has come from all the bickering over this question. The eucharist, which is supposed to be an act of remembrance that serves as a source of unity and joy, is instead (for many people) a source of conflict and division. Why have we not more often followed the example of Jesus on this question? When some of the people asked: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”, Jesus did not answer with explanations and theories, he simply told them to eat.
There are some instructions concerning the proper way to celebrate the eucharist which have come down to us through scripture and other tradition, and we should expect ourselves and other Christians to follow these instructions, but we must do so with the full knowledge that we are not doing exactly the same things as Jesus and his friends did that night. We just don’t have or know all the customs that Jesus and his friends had, but we can do what we can to be faithful to the request that we eat and drink together in remembrance of Jesus. We heard some instructions about how to celebrate the eucharist from Paul’s Letter to Corinth in our second reading this morning. The Corinthians were having trouble in their celebrations of the eucharist, so Paul is trying to help them, and if you read the few paragraphs before our passage this morning, the trouble that he mentions has nothing to do with academic arguments over sacramental theology – the trouble is the fact that poor people and rich people were being treated differently at the meal. Paul tells the Corinthian Christians that this division shows contempt for the church of God, and that their improper celebration of the Lord’s Supper brings judgment upon them. He actually says that they bring judgment upon themselves by eating and drinking without discerning the body. The Body that they were incorrectly discerning is not only a reference to the Last Supper where Jesus took the bread and said: “this is my body”, it is also a reference to the people who were sharing that bread, for in the same letter to Corinth a few paragraphs later, Paul says: “You are the body of Christ.” As Augustine of Hippo once said: “There you are upon the table…there you are in the cup.” (sermon 229) We need to have that in mind when we come together at the table up here – just as the bread that we eat up here is the Body of Christ (how and why we don’t know), so the people around the altar eating the bread are the Body of Christ (how and why, we don’t know).
We treat the consecrated bread from the altar with respect and reverence, as we should. However, if we do that, we should also treat each other with just as much respect. Reverence toward one form of Jesus is mocked by disrespect toward the other. We know we don’t always reverence each other as we should, but we also know that we are trying to grow so that we do. We also have the sure hope that the more we come together and believe together at the altar, the more we will be changed from the inside so that our outside actions match our desire, and that hope is met with grace.
We can also work from the outside in order to help our inward desires become more Christlike, and that outward work is also met with grace. There is some help in this regard from our reading in Deuteronomy this morning. Moses is speaking to the Hebrews as they prepare to cross the Jordan into their promised land. He asks them to keep all the commandments – not out of fear of God, but because those commandments will help them live in increasing joy and prosperity. He reminds them that the hardships they encountered while wandering in the wilderness were a means of preparing them for their life in the promised land. One of the ways of preparation was to allow them to hunger so that they would have to rely on God to feed them. Moses said this was a form of discipline.
Discipline is a means of preparation for something. Maybe if we accept the discipline of treating each other with respect as the Body of Christ, even when it is difficult or when we don’t want to or when we don’t feel like it or when the respect is not returned, then we will be prepared to enter our promised land of life with Jesus. Actually, we will already be there, and our families, our monastery, our nation and our world will truly be a land flowing with milk and honey. So, as God fed the Hebrews with manna, may we now be fed with the living bread from heaven, and may we do our best to see Jesus in that bread and in the people around us. Both tasks are difficult, but all we are asked is to take and eat. AMEN