Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Angel wanted me to update the blog for Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Troy.  At this point normal Sunday services will be Morning Prayer only until further notice.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Sunday: Closely Watching

Today we're listening to the Gospel lesson, and Jesus had been asked to attend a Sabbath dinner at a private home of some Pharisees.  The Bible is anything but subtle about the lessons that we will receive.  Within one verse, we know something's up, because Jesus is being very closely watched.  With this first verse, we know this isn't simply a nice invitation to Sabbath dinner.  Something is going to challenge Christ, and it won't take long for the controversy to arise.  In our lesson this morning, we've already heard the "rest of the story", and know both lessons told within the words from Luke. 
The first example is the lesson not to choose one's own place of honor, but rather display humility so that a host may display honor, emphasizing the humility you've shown.  If one assumes honor and ends up having to "move down", so to speak, one then shows their own disgrace.  This example is only the first part of the lesson, because in this, we are only dealing with people who are dealing with others within one's same social class.  Jesus went to a private party, and understandably, he should not have been expected to deal with anything more than dinner and potentially interesting discussion.  But again, with that very first verse, we've already been told, "they were watching him closely."
So Jesus has explained the first lesson, but since He's apparently expected to earn His own supper, Christ continues to teach the Pharisees.  Blessed are those who are able to provide food, when others have nothing to offer in return.  Here, Christ refers to the crippled, the lame, the blind.  It would just as easy today to be people providing a meal for those who are homeless, who has AIDS, or who are abused.  These are the people outside of "common society", and Jesus is reminding us to wake up, that you will be repaid "at the resurrection of the righteous.”
This has got to be pretty heavy dinner conversation, but that's right, you missed the first part of the discussion Jesus first told in Verses 2 through 6:
"Just then, in front of him [that would be Christ], there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, 'Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?' But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, 'If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?' And they could not reply to this."
Very often, these lessons from Christ seem repetitive, and so the portions are skipped in our Sunday lesson.  Dropsy was a collective term for conditions including everything from simple edema to deadly swellings of the lungs.  Luke did not define the problem, but given the man stopped at a private home to see Christ, it was probably not just something easily treated by other physicians on the Sabbath.  But Jesus wanted other people to realize that, even if it was something non-threatening, people could have "a child or an ox that had fallen." 
All of the lessons in this Gospel are asking people to think – what would they want if they were in the situation?  Are they open to realizing that God would like us to take care of His people, feeding His sheep as Christ will later ask Peter? 
Christ takes time before telling the next part of this same dinner where Jesus was attending.  And here, you will find that the perspective is changing from people being invited and encouraged by Christ, to the perspective of God basically setting down the law.
One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”
So here again, we're given understand that God is providing us many opportunities, but eventually, God will set His mind.  We don't know when we will be called in.  What we do have are the opportunity to choose to follow God – or not.  We do know that part of that responsibility is teaching others so that they, too, have the opportunity to choose to follow Christ. 
This whole story in Luke provides each of us the chance through Christ the opportunity for a full lesson.  Should we follow the letter of the law, or live with the spirit of the law?  Should we maintain our own humility so that our position can be raised through someone else's regard for our raised opinion?  Should we care for the least, the lost and the last, so that we maintain the blessing we will be paid at the resurrection?  And finally, do we realize that time is not infinite?  We truly do have a decision to make in how we treat those God provides us.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Tuesday Sermon: Scribes, Pharisees and Hypocrites

Jesus went to the heart of the matter when he called the religious leaders of His day:  scribes, Pharisees and hypocrites!  The word hypocrite means actor -- someone who puts on a show to draw attention to themselves. The scribes devoted their lives to the study of the Law of God and regarded themselves as legal experts in it.  They divided the 10 Commandments and precepts into thousands of tiny rules and regulations.  They were so exacting in their interpretations and in trying to live them out, that they had little time for anything else, even the love of God.  By the time they finished compiling their interpretations, they combined no less than 50 volumes!  Jesus chastised them for neglecting the more important matters of religion, such as justice and the love of God.  In their misguided zeal, they had lost sight of God and of His purpose for the law.

Jesus used the example of tithing to show how far they had missed the mark. God had commanded a tithe of the first fruits of one's labor as an expression of thanksgiving and honor for His intended care for His people (Deut. 14:22; Lev. 27:30).  The scribes, however, went to extreme lengths to tithe on insignificant things (such as tiny plants) with great mathematical accuracy.  They were very attentive to minute matters of little importance, but they neglected to care for the needy and the weak.  Jesus admonished them because their hearts were not right.  They were filled with pride and contempt for others. They put unnecessary burdens on others while neglecting to show charity, especially to the weak and the poor.  They meticulously went through the correct motions of conventional religion while forgetting the realities. Jesus used a funny example to show just how out of proportion things had gotten with them.  Gnats were considered the smallest of insects, and camels were considered the largest of animals in Palestine. Both were considered ritually impure.  The scribes went to great lengths to avoid contact with gnats, even to the point of straining the wine cup with a fine cloth lest they accidently swallow a gnat.  The stark contrast must have drawn chuckles as well as groans.  What was the point of Jesus' lesson and humor? The essence of God's commandments is love — love of God and love of neighbor.  God is love and everything He does flows from His love for us.  Love is sacrificial; it both embraces and lifts the burdens of others.  Do you allow the love of God to transform your mind and heart?

Now, you know me – I'm fairly exacting in the words I want to choose – even if I might not currently be able to pronounce everything just as I know it's right inside my head – but maybe this particular lesson for me is to remind others that the love of God is the important message from God and to all of God's creations.  As Episcopalians, we tend to look for the positive, but reading the Gospel today makes us listen to both the chastisement and the humor that Christ brings forth.  Achieving perfection is, in actuality, only achieved by God – and striving for that is certainly admirable.  But when the striving for perfection makes us forget the meaning of God's love for His creation, then we need to laugh at ourselves, and remember Christ's message to us.  Are you loving God and His creation?

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Tuesday Sermon: Bigger Pictures

          One of the things that I love about mid-week readings is that we are given the opportunity to see portions that we don't get to hear about the lessons, stories and people who share their lives with us.  And while the gospel lesson today is definitely interesting and well worth reading about, today, we're going to focus on the story in Judges.  And today, our short sermon will focus on Deborah, the only judge in this book that tells about the judge chosen by God among the women in history.
          Now, first, the reading from today tells the battle in poetic form, and essentially is a stylized song in Chapter 5 that was a much more factual story about what happened in Chapter 4.  So when you listen to the story, remember that if you go back and read Chapter 4, you'll get a lot more of the facts that took place.  Chapter 5 talks more about the victory of Israel in total, while at the same time, admonishes those tribes that didn't bother to participate in the war.  So there's a bit of commentary that wasn't in Chapter 4.  It's up to you to determine whether Deborah acted as a stateswoman or a propagandist.
          Starting one verse before today's lesson, Deborah writes:  “Tell of it, you who ride on white donkeys, you who sit on rich carpets and you who walk by the way.  To the sound of musicians at the watering places, there they repeat the triumphs of the Lord, the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel.  'Then down to the gates marched the people of the Lord.'"  Fresh water sources were extremely important in passing news to the people. Wells were places where a man can find his bride, where a leader can negotiate a treaty, and where a community comes together. So in Deborah’s time news was spread through singers "at the watering places”.  The song today may have been written for just that purpose, as her recording of the war for the people.
          In today's reading, Deborah tells about the sections where Deborah and Barak were called up by God, provided a list of the tribes that participated, as well as admonishing against the tribes that didn't show up, and then provided a description of the battles.  As a stateswoman, Deborah wasn’t just telling a "true" story – you can go back and read Chapter 4 for that.  She was telling a story in a way that united Israel – even as she admonished those tribes who did not participate in the war.  The important story tells about the capital of the Canaanite king who is causing so many difficulties. 
          Deborah's states craft in her song changes a fairly local skirmish between a couple of tribes to involving leaders who had participated by not actually sending troops, but rather sent leaders.  But by mentioning the other tribes, Deborah is changing this story of a small set of skirmishes in northern Israel into one of national importance. And this is the story that is being sung at the wells all over Israel, about how six of the tribes got together to defeat a common enemy, even when two of the tribes were far from in danger, and in reality only two of the tribes actually did the fighting.
          As we often find in today's editing to achieve political goals, this method of telling the victor's story omits certain facts.  The combatants become a bit more generic as she writes, " The kings came, they fought; then fought the kings of Canaan."  (Judges 5:19)  Instead of being one thorn in the side of one tribe, she widens the story.  All of the tribes had enemies among the Canaanites and by expanding the fight to the “kings”, everyone that heard this song could have identified with it.  And by castigating the others that didn’t help, she’s both asserting her – and God’s – leadership of them and encouraging them to participate next time. That was brilliant, and it worked: Manasseh and Asher will both send troops to the next incursion in Chapter 6.
          Deborah's brilliant military strategy, her oratory, and her mastery of Israeli tribal politics is remembered. Because of her efforts, Israel was at peace for forty years.  My suggestion here is that we keep in mind God's lessons within the Bible may be more about the lessons we need to learn, rather than the specific facts.  Today's lesson is more about unity, defending God's people, than more specifically about skirmishes and detailed fights.  Today, we're asked to look at the bigger picture, uniting people under God. 

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Sermon: Seize the Day

          This week, I've been looking at what inspires people.  The inspiration from the Bible itself is much easier to listen, and understand the passion that was actually written in those words.  Our Psalm this morning can inspire the words that David speaks:  "They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.  But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.  Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.  Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved." 
          We can often learn the words that inspire us more easily when we hear it set to words that speak to our hearts.  If we were lucky when we attended school, we learned to do more than just read the words in our classics. Some of you may remember the movie "Dead Poets Society."  The movie stars the amazingly talented Robin Williams.  Williams plays John Keating, a high school English teacher at an all-boys private academy, who is committed to helping his students take advantage of life's opportunities.  Keating leads his class out into the foyer of the building where old photographs of graduating classes from decades past cover the walls.  As the boys study the portraits of the classes who had graduated generations before them, Keating remarks that the men in those pictures were just like them, full of hope and ambition.  Then Keating asks his class, "Did they wait till it was too late to realize their full potential?" 
          Then he tells the class that if they lean in close they can hear a message from the men in these pictures.  So they lean in and Keating whispers, "Carpe Diem.  Carpe Diem.  Seize the day, boys.  Make your lives extraordinary."
          Whenever I read Hebrews 11, I feel a bit like one of the students in Keating's class.  Except in this case, the writer of Hebrews is my teacher, and he is taking me on a field trip through the "Hall of Faith."  I see portraits of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Samson.  I learn about the heroes of the faith and the extraordinary things they did for God.  As I take in this inspiring tour, it's as if these heroes are calling out to me, "Carpe Diem!  Seize the day.  Make your life extraordinary for God!"
          So listen again to Hebrews:  "And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect."
          So here, we are led from Hebrews, discussing the men from the Old Testament.  We've been listening to Christ telling us about the people of faith, led to today.  And it feels like Jesus has had a terrible, horrible, nogood, very bad day. “I have come to bring fire to the earth, and oh how I wish it were blazing already! Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No! I’ve come for division!”
          We've been listening to Christ telling us of the love of God, of how we need to follow the words God has provided us.  But often if our following the words we hear and listen, we don't really take in.  How many people hear the words they listen to on Sunday, and by afternoon, they've forgotten the words?  We may get the gist, and we might even think about it during the week, but how often are we hearing words that actually inspire us to take action, to change something in our own lives, to follow God's words? 
          CS Lewis wrote within a story, to find a method of reaching those who could actually hear the message.  "In the children’s novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe … four British siblings enter a coat closet and discover a whole other world called Narnia. This magical world is filled with talking animals and the original Lion King, a lion named Aslan, who rules over all of Narnia. The youngest child Lucy strikes up a conversation with Mr. Beaver, asking about Aslan, “is he quite safe?” to which Mr. Beaver replies, “"Safe?...Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good.”
          We know the story being told in the Bible.  We've heard Christ say, "I have come to bring fire to the earth!"  And has it occurred to you that we are Christians – our responsibilities require us to follow Christ.  Simple attendance on Sundays merely feed our own souls, but when we leave here, our responsibilities as Christians is to bring that word of Christ to the world, whether that is said aloud or demonstrated in our own actions and choices. 
          Christ brought fire to the earth.  We were taught that "since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of God."  Carpe Diem, followers of Christ – Seize the day, and make a difference.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Tuesday Sermon: True Greatness

          Today's Gospel hits home with me.  When I was ordained, responsible for guiding the souls of this church, concerned with numbers in both of people and of monies, I focused on everything but concentrating on my own responsibility.  There's a story that put today's lesson into perspective.
          A preacher uses his cute, young children in every sermon:  his four-year-old daughter Elena is not only beautiful, but she's also a genius.  He told her often how proud of her that he is for various things, and how smart he thinks she is.  One day in the car as they were driving, dad hears from the back seat after a bit of driving silence:  'Daddy, I think I might be the smartest girl in the whole world.'  Okay, at four, she's cute, but the reason it's cute is because of the naiveté of a child.  A statement like that when wrapped in roots of pride and arrogance beginning to bud in the words of a fledgling Pharisee bloom in our ears and should make us cringe at our own words.
          Like today's gospel, we're often talking about political and societal position.  The disciples were seeking political rank, social status, perks and power that come from being buddies with the King. They're wondering about the org chart.
          In these words of Jesus, I must be converted from pride to humility; from worldly ambition to spiritual ambition; from godlessness to godliness.  Jesus has told us, we must be born again!  The gospel wasn't given to us to just to be an easy ride into a good place; it was given to cleanse us of sin by His blood and change our lives, from the inside out!  When I obey the gospel, I'm not just saying, "I was wrong about the church."  I'm actually saying, "I was wrong about how I was living my life, wrong in my behavior, wrong in my attitudes, ambitions and associations – I was lost!"
          Christ focused His listeners, "calling to Him a child, He put [the youth] in the midst of them and said, Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.'"  If we attempt to realize our own hubris, the size of our world, the amount of our knowledge, particularly when compared to Christ, we realize that like the pastor who recognizes the cute 4-year-old, we, too, must recognize that we are naïve, our world is quite small, and our understanding and perspective is actually quite trifling. 
          But here, Christ is telling us, with our own perspective of many more years than the 4-year-old child, we need to realize that we are still children in God's eyes, and eliminate the hubris, pride and arrogance that we practice, and change our attitudes in recognition of our actual reality.  We truly are children.  God, the all-powerful, the all wise, all good, perfectly right:  God, is asking us to see ourselves in relationship to Him, not relative to each other.
          Christ's message today is, if we want to be the best among the rest of the disciples, we're aiming far too low.  To enter heaven, we must realize that we are the child's position and have so much to learn in knowledge, in understanding.  We need to set aside our rights and privileges, and recognize our neediness and dependence,  The best way we can emulate Christ's actions is for us to serve others the way He served us.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Sermon: Plans

          One of the interesting things we find in the Bible is that people – faithful, everyday people who believe in God – were pretty normal people.  Their conversations with God included thanks and praise, prayers and worries, but like today, also included a bit of kvetching because things weren't exactly as promised by God.  As you've heard me say often, God's time is perfect – we still have to work on practicing patience and trust.
          Abrahm in this instance has done his best.  He's achieved his military successes and his financial successes.  But he and Sarai are running out of human time for a baby to be born to fulfill the promise that God made to Abrahm.  And his concerns are taken to God.  God tells him, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great."  Well, Abrahm appreciates the words, but he wants something a little more – he'd like a timeline.
          God reassures Abrahm saying, "no one but your very own issue shall be your heir."  But before Abrahm can bring up his age and Sarai's age again, God takes him outside, and says, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them."  Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be."  And Abrahm trusts God's word, not realizing at this point that it will be 13 years before Sarai gives birth to Isaac, with yet another step in which Abrahm fathered Ishmael with Hagar, trying to fulfill God's word.
          It's often that as humans, we establish "Plan B", just in case what we think God has plans for our lives isn't going to happen the way we thought.  And Plan B may be something good – it may just be taking up time until Plan A takes place, or maybe it should have been changed from Plan B to Plan A to begin with.
          It is so easy for us to think we have to limit our expectations. Not to hope too high.  Not to dream dreams. To live as people would say "in the real world". But that was not God's plan for Abrahm, and that is not God's plan for us.
          Let's look at these in a bit more modern activities.  Back in the 1930's there was once a student called George Danzig.  Being a typical student, he was late for his lecture.  The math professor had written two problems on the blackboard.  Danzig thought they were the homework assignment. It was the most difficult homework assignment he'd ever encountered. Night after night he tried solving the two problems.  It took him nearly a week to finally figure them out.  He finally turned in his assignment and thought he’d get a bad grade because it took so long.
          A few weeks later, George heard a pounding on his door early in the morning. He was surprised to see his mathematics professor standing there. His professor said, “George, you solved the problems.” George said, “Well yeah - that was our homework.” The professor said, “That wasn’t your homework. Those were two of the most famous insolvable problems in mathematics. The world's leading mathematicians have been trying for years to solve the two problems you solved in a few days.”
          George Danzig, who later became a professor at Stanford University, said, “If someone had told me that they were two famous unsolved problems, I probably wouldn’t have even tried to solve them.” (Contributed by Mark Batterson)
          The thing is, God has plans for each and every one of us.  Now, because we tend to be fairly industrious people, we look for the "Plan A" and if that doesn't happen, we work on other things.  The importance is being aware and being prepared to follow Plan A when God says the time is right. 
          Bill Gates may have made many people's lives easier through the software he developed.  However, his greatest achievements through his charitable trust, seeking to cure malaria and change the world, have only become possible after first spending many years of slogging at Microsoft.
          The importance here is being aware when God is moving in your life, and being prepared to follow the plans He has.  And at the same time, keeping at least one of your ideas and plans to be fairly practical.
          Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are out camping.  In the middle of the night, Holmes wakes Watson up and says "What do you see", “I see millions of stars.” “What does that tell you?” asked Holmes.  Watson ponders for a minute. “Astronomically speaking, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Timewise, it appears to be approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, it’s evident the Lord is all powerful and we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, it seems we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What do the stars tell you, Holmes?” "Elementary my dear Watson - As we look up at those stars it tells me ... Someone has stolen our tent.”
          Sometimes we can be so stuck in one way of thinking, we need be given a new perspective. Abrahm is inside his tent, thinking about walls, God has to take him outside to give him a new perspective. God has to take him outside. "you see these stars - count them" " one, two three...." "Look towards the heavens and count the stars if you are able - so shall your descendants be."
          Even though we have a small church, God has plans for us – even when we didn't have the plans we might have personally had.  Before we say no about the growth of our church, we each need to move ourselves out of the way of our own plans.  We may not know what's going to happen, but I'd ask each of you to pause and listen – is God enacting Plan A in His time?  Are you ready to follow through with that?  And of course, likewise, is Plan A not yet time?  And are you ready to enact Plan B until then?