Epiphany IV Year C: News Of The World

Jeremiah 1:4-10
I Corinthians 14:12b-20
Luke 4:21-32

Waiting in line for the cashier at the grocery store, one is confronted with a lot of alternative newspapers: “Weekly World news”, “National Enquirer”, “The Star”. Many times, the front pages of these papers are filled with predictions for the coming year, and they are often listed as “prophecies to be fulfilled”. But contrary to the way the word “prophecy” is used by these newspapers, biblical prophecy does not mean predicting the future. Scriptural prophecy is about God speaking through humans. Occasionally, prophecy might have some predictions for the future, such as the prophet warning people that if they continue on the course they have plotted, bad things will come of it, but if they repent and change directions, they will be headed for good things. But overall, prophecy is about God using humans to make God’s will known to other humans.

Our first scripture reading today is about one of the more famous of the biblical prophets – Jeremiah – whom God used to let the people of Judah know that Babylon would soon conquer them and lead their government into exile, but not to worry about it or resist it, because God was going to use the Babylonian victory for the good of the people of Judah, and eventually for the whole world. We just heard about God letting Jeremiah know that he was to be God’s prophet, and about Jeremiah protesting that he was “only a boy”. We might say the very same thing, or something similar, if we were in that situation. Moses told God that he could not be a prophet because he was not an eloquent speaker. Isaiah said that he was a man of “unclean lips”. In all three situations, God sent them anyway, because God is bigger than all of those problems, and God is bigger than any problem we might bring up in order to get out of our own calling as prophets.

And we are all called to be prophets, even though most of the time it won’t be like Moses or Isaiah or Jeremiah. Paul talks about this in our second reading from his letter to the Christians in Corinth. He reminds them, and us, that we are all given gifts from God, and that we need to make sure we use those gifts to help everyone, rather than using them simply to gratify our own desires. Not all prophecy comes in spoken words. Often, the strongest prophecy is simply living the way one ought to live regardless of how easy it would be to live another way, even if the majority of society is not living righteously. Of course, that backfires and becomes blasphemy if the ones living righteously look down upon those not living righteously. It also turns from prophecy to blasphemy if the words we speak in God’s name or the way we live in God’s name are actually based on our own desires and neuroses, instead of really being God’s ways and words. That is why we always need a lot of prayer and self-examination to make sure all our thoughts, words, and deeds are coming from God as the center of our lives, rather than from ourselves trying to run things.

That is also why we need to make sure to listen to and watch the prophets God sends to us – the people sitting around us now and the people with whom we live and work. Of course there will be false prophets among us, just as we are sometimes all false prophets. But that doesn’t take away our responsibility to be prophets, nor does it take away our responsibility to heed the prophets around us. Just because the people around us are humans like us who make mistakes and sin and aren’t perfect, that does not negate their prophetic function. Even Jesus (who did not sin) was not heeded by the people in his hometown of Nazareth. They even tried to throw him off a cliff, as we heard in our gospel story this morning. So just because the people around us seem too common to be prophets, we need to remember just how common Jesus was, or Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Moses were, and yet how much the world needed to listen to them. In the same way, we need to listen to God speaking through the common people around us, and we need to allow God to fill us so that our own words and actions are reflections of his love for the world. We may never be on the headlines of those newspapers in the checkout line (hopefully we will never be), but we can be prophets – letting the world know that God has more and better things in store for us than we could ever imagine or could ever procure ourselves. God has called us, and even though we will fail God, God will never fail us.   AMEN

Christmas I Year C: Christmas Gifts

Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Galatians 3:23-25;4:4-7
John 1:1-18

The opening of the Gospel according to John is read and heard a lot during Christmas time. It reminds us of the cosmic and universal aspects of the birth of Jesus, just as Matthew and Luke remind us of the personal and national aspects of his birth. One particular verse in this part of John’s gospel calls to mind some of the philosophy books in our library describing the attributes of God. Along with eternal, omniscient, omnipresent, and others, most authors also mention an aspect of God that is sometimes termed “absolute”, and other times called “necessary”. Along with God’s “absolute” or “necessary” nature comes the fact that everything else is “conditional” or “contingent”, at least in the philosophical structures of those authors. What they mean is: “if there is a God, then only God must exist, and everything else exists only because God makes it so.” Only God is absolute and necessary, everything else is contingent and conditional. This is what we get in the third verse of our gospel reading today: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

God is existence; God is being; God is life – that is the God of the philosophers. But we also say that God is love – that is the God of Jesus. God is love, and so gives existence, being, and life to others. We must always remember that those things are gifts; we can create nothing by our own power – not life or love or happiness or prosperity or people who act the way we want them to or situations that turn out the way we want them to. Since everything is a gift from God, we can only be stewards of the things around us. (Maybe “only” is not a good word to use, because it is a great honor to be caretakers of anything God makes.)

We can stop worrying about things, because nothing is under our control. That does not mean we can be lazy, because we can and should do our best to take care of the people, things, and events God has entrusted to us. In fact, realizing that God has given us the world around us to take care of should make us very careful of the work we put into our guardianship of the things around us. But after that, we can do nothing to control the results of our work. Knowing that takes a burden off of our shoulders, because we can only do our best – no more and no less – and after that everything is up to God. We are free to be stewards of the universe, and we are free to be under other people’s stewardship. In fact the honor of caring for others and being under other people’s care is so great that God chose to experience it as a child under the care of Joseph and Mary, and then as a master caring for his disciples.

The universe is a wonderful gift. Our lives are wonderful gifts. The people around us are wonderful gifts. We have everything to be thankful for, because we have a lifetime of unwrapping presents ahead of us.   AMEN

Advent III Year C: It’s Up To You

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Philippians 4:4-9
Luke 3:7-18

Our first two scripture readings this morning tell us to rejoice, because God is among us. The prophet Zephaniah tells his listeners twice that God is in their midst and will rescue them from all the bad things going on around them. The letter from Paul to Philippi says that not only is the Lord near, but also if we live in peace and love, God is already with us. These two parts of scripture are actually used a lot, and are familiar to many people: Zephaniah is often read during Advent, and is one of the many scripture passages used during this time of year that talk about “daughter Zion” and “daughter Jerusalem” singing and rejoicing after a long period of mourning; Paul’s advice to the Philippians is read and meditated over and memorized by many people as a help in changing negative attitudes into positive ones. This particular part of Zephaniah actually calls to mind a piece of music we learned in sixth grade orchestra by Handel or Haydn (or some composer whose name begins with “h”), whose melody was an aria about daughter Zion singing with joy. And whenever I hear this part of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi, it reminds me of advice from a former music teacher: “negative thoughts eat your brain”. Some other people might be reminded of the song: “Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative”.

Whatever these two first scripture passages might call to mind, it is probably joyful for most people. And then we have the story from the gospel about John the Baptist – a figure (rightly or wrongly) not usually associated with rejoicing – and in the story this morning he lives up to his somber reputation. He says that the Lord is coming, but he doesn’t do it with the happy tone of our first two scriptures. He calls his listeners a bunch of snakes and says that when God gets here, it will be to chop down and burn up them and their wicked deeds, so they better get busy and clean up their lives. These words of John the Baptist are as famous as our earlier scriptures, but they are rarely used as the basis for elementary school orchestra songs or as aids by positive thinking gurus (although they do show up in a Bob Marley song about the destruction of the workers of iniquity).

However, John really doesn’t deserve his joyless reputation, because he was merely telling the truth, and it is a truth that needs to be heard; the truth of God chopping down and burning up our wicked deeds should be more joyful to us than we make it out to be, because all of those sins are not proper to our true identities as images of God. Even though we have numbed ourselves into thinking that all our little sins are pleasurable, they are actually barriers to true pleasure and fulfillment in God. We come to identify ourselves with our sins, when in reality they are foreign to the true nature of humanity as created by God. God does not want to chop us down and burn us up in his wrath; God wants to clear out the things that hinder our true personalities, and God’s wrath is directed against those barriers to our fulfillment, not toward us. Unfortunately, if we choose to cling to our sin, it only follows that we indeed will feel the axe intended for them, but that is our choice, not God’s.

The only way to make sure that we get out of the way of the axe is to admit and confess our sins so that we can see them for what they are: freely chosen actions that are not proper to us as children of God. Most people are not crooked government officials or extorting soldiers like John describes. Instead, most of us are hobbled by our own list of sad little sins that includes greed, superior attitudes, judgementalism, holding grudges, desiring revenge, or always wanting to say “I told you so!”. It is scary to have all these things so dear to us burned up, but God is too good and loving to let us continue to live that way – crippled by our own pettiness. We can start the process now of shedding our sins, but even that is frightening (at least on the surface), because in order to do so, we have to admit that we are just as petty as everyone else. But as we confess our sinfulness, we are slowly given the realization that we are also just as good as everyone else, and so we are worth the effort it takes to admit our sins and use the gift of God’s grace to repent and live differently.

The axe is at the tree, as John the Baptist says. It is up to us whether or not to rejoice in that fact, knowing God is cutting things away so that we may be healed and cured of our blindness so that we can see God and the world in their true beauty, or to resist it so that we can futilely try to hang on to the fake self-centered world we surrounded ourselves with. It is up to us whether to be joyful at the news of God’s presence, like Zephaniah and Paul, or to be frightened of it, like many of John the Baptist’s listeners. May we choose the health, life and truth offered by God, and may we help others do the same.   AMEN

Proper 28 Year B: And Then The Reading Ends

Daniel 12:1-13
Hebrews 10:31-39
Mark 13:14-23

Our scripture readings today have caused a lot of confusion and anxiety for many people, because they are often interpreted as a prediction of future calamities and the end of the world as we know it. However, even if these scriptures are about future calamities and the end of the world, we don’t need to be worried.

The first reading from the book of Daniel is the strangest of our three readings today, but that is to be expected because Daniel is one of the strangest books in the Bible. The passage we just heard is part of a longer story describing a vision Daniel had that lasts for three chapters. The vision happens in the third year of the Persian shah Cyrus (which means that Daniel is an extremely old man when it happened), and it involves future Iranian and Greek kings, as well as someone identified as the ‘king of the south’. Other characters include angels and a shiny guy with a loud voice and a woman used as part of a plot to destroy a kingdom. The vision also includes a list of destructive wars between all these kings. When Daniel asks about the outcome of the destruction, he is told to keep silent about it, and that good people will come out of it ok, but the bad people will not, so he is advised to persevere in doing good even though times are hard, because someone is coming to the rescue of all the good people. So Daniel, after being told to keep silent about it, writes it down in a book. Maybe he feels that is not really disobedient as long as he does not read the book out loud to anyone.

Moving on to the New Testament, the author of our second reading from the letter to the Hebrews is reminding his listeners of the struggles they have had in the past, and how they kept good attitudes throughout their problems. He encourages them to remain confident until someone comes to the rescue of those who have faithfully endured. Then in our gospel story, Jesus is warning his disciples that bad times are coming. He even quotes a phrase from the book of Daniel describing how bad it will be. He says that people will be duped into following false hopes of rescue, but we do not need to be fooled by them, because he has told us everything.

And then the reading ends! What has he told us that will save us? He goes on after our reading stops and says that he will send his angels to gather his chosen, but how are we to endure until that happens? What has he told us that will save us? He gives no secret timetables of the end of the world (unlike what many tv preachers say). In fact, his description of events leading up to the end of the world sounds very ordinary and no different that what has always been happening: wars, earthquakes, people doing business and getting married. When have those things not happened? Maybe what he is saying is this: the world will continue as it always has; people will be just as cruel and petty as they always have been, and it is up to you to remain faithful to and endure in my way until the end of time. His way is the way of compassion, kindness, joy, peace, and forgiveness. We are to live this way even with all the hardships we encounter. We are to live by faith, not by sight or by emotion – abiding in the love, joy, and peace of Jesus no matter what is going on in our world, and passing that love, joy, and peace on to others around us.

It is not always easy, but we are to do it anyway, whether or not help comes to end the hardship around us. We are safe in God’s hands no matter our situation or the situation of the world around us, and we can faithfully endure all things because Jesus endures them with us. Our job is not to worry about if, how, or when we will be saved; our job is to trust in God, because by trusting in God, we are saved. So there is really no need to worry, even if these and other scriptures are frightening – nothing can take us out of God’s hands except our own decision to go it alone, thinking we can take care of things better than God can. But God knows our situation better than we ever could, so the safest place to be as the world falls apart around us is in God, trusting him with our lives. There will be wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and global warming, debates about the number of planets in the solar system and celebrity couples getting married and divorced, business mergers and bankruptcies, but God is eternal, and in God, so are we.   AMEN

Proper 24 Year B: Human Nature

Isaiah 53:4-12
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:35-45

Our reading from the prophet Isaiah has been used to describe the vocations of Israel, of Isaiah, and of Jesus, because no one really knows who it is talking about. The subject is usually called the “suffering servant”, and depending on one’s religious or academic preference, the suffering servant is usually seen to be whomever it is that will bolster one’s opinion. It is a beautiful part of scripture, and the part we read today is only a small part of the entire “Song of the Suffering Servant”. One of the verses we read today is used to describe the human condition of falleness: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way…” That verse, as well as many other parts of scripture, are cited as examples of depraved human nature; we have gone astray, we have fallen from grace, we are bound for hell. However, it seems that if human nature was really one of depravity, then doing evil could not be conceived of as “going astray” – it could only be described as “following the correct course”, because we would be doing exactly what God made us for. If human nature were truly bad, then doing good would be going astray.

That is why, when these and other scriptures are used as a basis to claim the total depravity of human nature, those scriptures are being used wrongly. Human nature is good, because, as other scriptures tell us, God made humans, and all that God made is good. We have gone astray because we have not followed our good nature. We have instead created a second nature for ourselves: a second nature of pride, self-centeredness, and fear. This second nature is a shell we have encrusted around our true natures of joy, peace, and God-centeredness. Our nature only seems to be totally depraved because we have done such a good job at covering up our God-given good natures.

Of course, God knows this, or God would not be calling us to repentance. If we were made to be bad, then there would be no reason for God to want to save us from that, because going to hell would be our proper function. But we know that God does want us to repent from our false nature of sinfulness and return to our true natures of love. God sees through our façade of evil and into our true selves B the selves that God created in God’s image. As our second scripture reading from the letter to the Hebrews tells us: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” We are created in God’s image, and nothing we can do will change that fact, or hide that fact from God.

The embarrassing thing is that we humans have chosen to cover up that divine nature for so long that we really can’t break out of the second nature we have made for ourselves. God knows that, and so God chose to become one of us so that by refusing to be lulled into crawling into that second nature, Jesus could break it open and pull us out. As Hebrews goes on to say: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” God knows firsthand how easy and tempting it is to want to cover ourselves in a shell of pride and hatred, but he also knows how much better it is to refuse that temptation. God has done it himself, and offers us the only escape from our second nature by standing with us, holding out his hand for us to grasp so he can pull us out of our shells of corruption. We can’t do it ourselves B that is obvious. Only by accepting God’s help can we be reborn back to our true selves.

Before we accept God’s offer to pull us out of the hell we have made for ourselves, we ought to be warned about what God’s offer of heaven is like. Jesus tells us about it in our gospel reading this morning: “whoever wishes to become great must be servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all – not to be served but to serve”. That describes the opposite of our self-serving second nature, so it is difficult for us because we are not used to it. But it is who we are created to be, and in the end it will bring us eternal joy. Sometimes we slip back into our fallen state, but Jesus is always there waiting to pull us out again if we accept his help. It is our choice, and we are confronted with it every day and every moment. Will we stay in our false second nature of sin and greed, or be pulled out of it to be born again into our true nature as God’s Child? Jesus is offering his hand, but we must reach out and grab it. AMEN

Angels With Their Wings Glued On: St. Michael And All Angels 2006

Genesis 28:10-17
Revelation 12:7-12
John 1:47-51

Jacob was a sleazy con man whose life was defined by lying; either he was being cheated, or he was cheating others. Jesus was an honest man whose life was defined by telling the truth even when doing so got him killed. Yet both of them got to see the angels of God, and both got to hear the voice of God announcing their vocations. Maybe their stories are an indication that if we are attentive enough, we can all see God’s angels and we can all hear God’s voice announcing our vocations.

But we have to be careful, because our scripture reading from the Book of Revelation tells us that God is not the only one with angels, and God is not the only one speaking to us. The accuser and deceiver is also trying to get us to listen. When God announces our vocation, that vocation is always to be a blessing to the people around us, and the angels are revolving around God (descending down to us and going back up to God). When Satan announces our vocation, that vocation is always to be a failure, and the angels are revolving around us and our failure (pointing out the bad parts and urging us to cover them up or blame others so things look better than they really are).

Unfortunately, we often listen to Satan rather than God because on the surface it is so much easier to be a failure than to be a blessing. It is easier to give up and blame others for everything than to work to make life better for others and then have that work go unnoticed and unappreciated, but in the end, Satan’s way of blaming others leads to death while God’s way of blessing others leads to life. We know that, but we so easily forget it in our busy and often lonely days. We don’t see the fruit of our work of trying to bless people, so we give up. That is why it is important for us to not ever try to see the fruit of our work, because as we know from the lives of so many saints, the fruit does not appear until they are long gone. Maybe the sweetest fruit takes a long time to ripen. We need to make sure that the motivation behind our work is love, not results. We need to live by faith, not by sight. If we live by what we see, of course we will follow Satan’s way of giving up in despair look how the world is slowly burning up in war and hatred. If we live by faith, we will follow God’s way of blessing make life better for the world around us, because it sure needs some help.

In the end, of course, Satan will be unmasked and his angels will have their fake wings plucked off. The truth of God’s love for each individual will finally be heard over the lies of Satan’s jealousy of us. We can start that process now by living the truth of our God-given vocation of blessing others, as well as by ceasing to spread the lie of other people’s vocations of failure and instead affirming them in their own God-given vocations of blessing us and those around us. We can choose now to whom we will listen, and with whose angels we will work. Do we want to see angels dancing around our shame, or do we want to see angels dancing around God’s love? Will we open our ears to Satan’s announcement of our already failed lives, or to God’s announcement of our lives of hard work bringing joy and peace to the world? Every day and every moment bring us those choices. Every time we choose to listen to God, we open the gate of heaven and enter the house of God. AMEN

Proper 19 Year B: Take Up Our Crosses

Isaiah 50:4-9
James 2:1-5,8-10,14-18
Mark 8:27-38

The prophet Isaiah in our first reading reminds us of two truths of life: life is difficult, and God is always there with us in the difficult times and is stronger than our problems. In the second reading, James reminds us about the difficulties in life; he alludes to the fact of poverty. He makes it plain that we should not add to the suffering of the poor by treating them as less worthy than rich people. Rather, we should prove we are on God’s side by doing what we can to ameliorate other people=s problems. In the gospel story, Mark reminds us that God chose to suffer and die along with us as a human, and if we want to follow Jesus, we must also be willing to suffer and die.

Jesus does not say that suffering and death are in themselves good. He says that losing our lives for his sake and for the sake of the gospel is good. There must be a reason behind the suffering to make it a good thing. There must be a reason to take up our cross, and maybe that reason is because if we don’t take it up, it means that someone less able to avoid it will have it added to his own already heavy and deadly cross. This is a good thing for us middle class Americans to ponder. We ought not feel guilty about enjoying such good fortune, but we do need to examine our way of life so that we are not causing others in the world to suffer because of our greed or laziness or chauvinism (whether or not any of those things are intentional).

God could have avoided the crucifixion of Jesus, but that would not have put him in union with all the others who had been and would later be crucified in Jerusalem, and had he not died, there would have been no resurrection. We have that same opportunity to not use our fortunate circumstances to run away from the plight of the rest of the world. We can do with less so that others can have more. We can stop shouting about how righteous we are so that others can let us know how we can all learn from each other. That seems so painful to us because we are so spoiled, but if we jump off that cross of pain and death, we miss our chance at joy and resurrection.

Of course we can always ask the age old question of why God doesn’t just make life sweet for everyone. We can ask all we want, but it won’t change the fact that God doesn’t do that, at least not right now. Right now we have the opportunity to be like God, standing with people in their difficulties and giving them strength to face the world as it is. We also have the opportunity to allow others to stand by us in our troubles, as Jesus was surrounded by the women at the cross. God loves us all, but life is still difficult. May we help others as best we can, whether they are near or far. May we always be sure that God is with us, going through our difficulties with us. May we be willing to take up our cross with Jesus, so that we may one day be resurrected with Jesus.   AMEN

Proper 15 Year B: The Banquet Of Wisdom

Proverbs 9:1-6
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:53-59

Our first two scripture readings today are both pleas and exhortations to live wisely. The first was from Solomon, telling us that Wisdom is calling to us to the banquet she has prepared for anyone who chooses to come to her house. The second is from Paul, telling us that since God has given us a new life in Jesus, we ought not to go back to our old selfish ways, but should wisely make the most of our lives by being thankful for everything God has given us. These two pleas for us to live wisely come from two very different settings: Solomon was a powerful and wealthy king; Paul was a powerless and poor preacher. The two lived a thousand years apart from each other, although they both spent time in Jerusalem. In many of Solomon’s writings, one gets the hint that he believed that some are born wise and others are born foolish, and that can’t be changed; in Paul’s writings, the predestination of the wise and foolish is sometimes hinted at, although some people have made a lot more of that hint of predestination than others.

The aspect of wisdom that is common between the two authors is the fact that wisdom is a gift from God, whether or not we are born with it or are offered it later in life as a choice to make by our own free will. Wisdom is not something that we can produce. Most people now would agree that wisdom is something that all people are offered, and most people would also agree that although it is a gift, it is not fully functional when it is given. We have to show our gratitude and appreciation of God’s gift of wisdom before it can work in us. We have to be diligent in listening to other wise people and in calmly and humbly taking criticism from others, whether or not that criticism is meant to be constructive or destructive (sometimes we can learn more from destructive criticism than from the constructive kind, because even though it is meant to harm us, it is usually true, so we should be grateful for it and do what we can to help the person trying to hurt us). We also have to keep our appetites for food, sex, alcohol, and partying in check, because even though they are good gifts from God, they can easily take over our lives and cause us to be harmful to ourselves and the people around us if we are not careful. All four of these disciplines of gratitude, listening, humility and moderation are based on the truth that we are not the center of the universe and getting what we want when we want it is not the most important thing in the world. True wisdom consists in living the truth that God is the center and source of everything.

Each of us is only a part of God’s wonderful world, but that does not negate our importance, because without everyone living their parts to the fullest, we are all impoverished. Our world is a fallen world because when we choose to put ourselves in the center, we throw everything off-balance and leave a hole in our spot so that others can’t receive what they need from us. God has not built the world around himself because he wants or needs attention. God has built the world around himself because that is the only way the world can be built, and God does not want it to go to waste by being the only one to experience it. The problem for us is that the universe is so wonderful, we want to claim it as our own. There is no need for that, because there is more than enough to go around, and when we are so busy trying to run the world our own way, we forget the joy of watching God run it the way it should be. We deserve more than the tiny universes we create for ourselves; that is why God made the infinite one for us. God gives us the world, as well as the wisdom to realize how wonderful and beautiful it is, whether or not we can ever begin to understand how it works. Our job is to take the wisdom offered to us and live our lives in such a way that it can grow in us and help us live wonderful and beautiful lives in harmony and peace with all the other elements of creation.

God not only gives us the world, God gives us his own self (that is what our third reading from John’s Gospel is all about). We will soon gather around the table up here to be fed by God’s own being. All the wisdom in the world won’t ever help us to understand how that is possible, but wisdom will let us know that we need it. We might not be the center of the universe, but the center of the universe wants to be in us. God loves us so much that he wants to be taken into us. We are offered God’s own life as we gather together at God’s table. Just as we cannot produce wisdom on our own, so we can not produce life on our own. We have to take it from God, who thinks we are worth enough for him to give his own life for us and to us. Taking the center of the universe into us should be a much higher goal than trying to create our own tiny universes revolving around us. One important step to that higher goal is to realize and remind ourselves that the center of the universe desires to be in everyone else gathered around the altar with us also. With God’s gift of wisdom, we will slowly learn to live, think, and speak that truth. It all comes from God, but we have the choice of accepting it or denying it. We will waver between the two every day and every moment, but by admitting that life and wisdom are solely gifts from God, God will help us take those gifts and make our lives better than we could ever have imagined on our own.   AMEN

Proper 10 Year B: Called

Amos 7:7-15
Ephesians 1:1-14
Mark 6:7-13

Many times, guests come to the monastery to spend time trying to discern the path that God wants them to take. Sometimes they are so concerned about doing the thing God wants them to do that their lives are crippled and at a standstill because, since they can’t figure out their exact calling, they simply do nothing out of fear of going against God’s will. They want to hear a definite call like Amos in our first reading, or like the twelve apostles in our gospel story. But for most people most of the time, our vocations fit more with our second reading: we are simply called to live and grow in Christ and spread his kingdom in our own normal daily lives. That reading (from Paul’s letter to Ephesus) describes our vocation as normal daily Christians, and it quickly becomes apparent that our seemingly unglamorous calling really has cosmic dimensions and implications: “…he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world…he destined us for adoption as his children…according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will…as a plan for the fullness of time…having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel…”

So even though sometimes, and for certain periods, we might discern specific instructions from God like Amos, Paul, and the twelve apostles did, even when we don’t discern those instructions, we can be assured that our lives are more meaningful than we might ever know. We need to always be open to specific calls from God, and we also need to be open to the fact that they might never come. But we can always use the many opportunities presented to us in our daily lives to be apostles and prophets to the small corner of the world where we find ourselves. We can be assured that by doing just that, we are fulfilling our vocations and being obedient to God. No need for agonizing and doing nothing out of fear of disobeying God’s will. God does have a plan for each of us, but it is probably not nearly as specific and detailed as some people would lead us to believe. The parameters of God’s plans for us are as wide as God’s love for us. The instructions for following those plans are as specific and detailed as our every breath. All we need to do is base every thought, word, and deed on love and respect for ourselves, our neighbors, and God. Of course, we don’t do that, and that is why we always need to admit our need for God’s grace to live our vocations as God’s children. We will fail to follow that path as God’s children every day, and God will forgive us of that failure every day.

There is a book in our library that opens with the statement that the most important question we can ask ourselves at the end of each day is: “Have I loved?” Of course the answer is always yes and no, because throughout each day we both succeed and fail in our vocations. And so we pray every day for God to help us be better apostles and prophets. We read scripture and let it slowly form us into better apostles and prophets. And we come here to gather at God’s table to allow God to feed us with himself as he makes us just what he wants us to be – no more, and no less. God calls us every day and every moment, and that call can be answered every day and every moment by simply living our dull, daily lives with faith, hope, and charity as we spread God’s kingdom in our own dull, daily worlds.   AMEN

One, But Not The Same: Peter and Paul 2006

Ezekiel 34:11-16
II Timothy 4:1-8
John 21:15-19

As Christians, we are all called to be shepherds, priests, and pastors, but rarely does a person’s call fit the usual professional job description associated with those terms. Instead, our vocation to shepherd each other hinges on our being part of the Body of Christ. As Ezekiel reminds us, God is the shepherd. It follows that since we are to be the physical presence of God to those around us, all members of Christ’s Body have pastoral responsibilities, no matter our profession or occupation. Ezekiel also reminds us that we are the sheep, so it follows that our duties lie in both directions; we must be open and available to pastor as well as to be pastored.

We never really know who is looking to us for guidance, and often that person is not fully aware of following our lead, so we must all “fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith” as Paul says, and we must do it in the way that is unique to each of us as different members of Christ’s Body. In other words, we simply need to be our best selves: the image of God we are created to be, because each person’s way of proclaiming Christ is a necessary part of the whole. Even Peter and Paul differed in their approach to evangelism, and the church would have been greatly impoverished had they not accepted their pastoral duties in their own individual ways.

Of course, we should never use the fact of our individuality as an excuse for laxness, stagnation, or complacency. As Paul reminds Timothy: “always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out you ministry fully.” Those are not heroic actions in themselves, butt we all know how difficult it is to perform them every day, year after year. Difficult or not, we must never give up, because as was stated before, we never know who is following us as their model and shepherd. Our entire lives must be seen as a function of our priesthood the priesthood of Jesus of which we all partake.

One aspect of being a shepherd which both Ezekiel and Jesus mention is the task of feeding the sheep. A good shepherd leads the sheep to the food and allows them to eat. As good pastors, we must never cram things down anyone’s throat or spoonfeed them when they ought to be capable of sitting up at the table with good manners. Such actions befit tyrannical cult leaders, not church members. As John Chrysostom told his congregation in Constantinople: “Jesus is the shepherd of sheep, not of wolves.” We also need to do ourselves and everyone else a favor and not allow anyone to cram anything down our throats, or demand to be spoonfed when we are capable of doing it ourselves. Just as we never know who is following us (consciously or unconsciously), we need to be aware of our role models and choose them deliberately and wisely, rather than just blindly following someone we do not even realize is leading us.

Accepting our individual status as shepherds, priests, and pastors is difficult at times and can seem a burden, rather than the joy it should be. Perhaps we can take encouragement from another famous pastor: John, a contemporary of Peter and Paul. Once again, John had his own unique ways of shepherding the people around him, the most famous of which was to simply raise his hand and remind the church: “Little children, love one another.” That might seem simplistic, but that is really our only job; everything else is peripheral. If we are faithful to the task of truly and actively loving each other (and sometimes that is quite a chore), then the other duties of being a pastor to those around us will fall into place as Love sees fit. “Little children, love one another.” “Do you love me? Feed my sheep.” “Jesus is the shepherd of sheep, not of wolves.” If we truly love God, our neighbors, and ourselves, we will feed and be fed, and we will walk through the valley of darkness and fear no evil; for the Lord is our shepherd, and we shall not want. AMEN