In the name of our loving, liberating and life-giving God, immanent, transcendent and everlasting. Amen
Our Gospel reading this morning takes place at the moment of transition from Jesus’s public ministry to his farewell discourses. The first 12 chapters of the Gospel of John span a time frame of 2-3 years while chapters 13-19 describe a single day and all the many details. Immediately before this passage, after the foot-washing, Jesus makes clear who it is who is going to betray him.
Jesus knows what is about to happen. He knows that the time is now. The hour has come, there is no turning back. Jesus says to Judas, “Do quickly what you are going to do”. None of this comes as a surprise to him. Yet Jesus is not afraid. In the three synoptic gospels, when Jesus goes into the garden he asks God “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me - yet not what I want but what you want, not my will but your will”
In a way, showing he is afraid - a moment of his very humanness
But in John’s gospel he doesn’t say this. He goes to the garden and there he is arrested and the whole ordeal begins. John portrays Jesus as completely un-ambivalent, already glorified…
Judas leaves and immediately Jesus begins to talk about the glorification of God. The word ‘glorified’ is used 5 times in the first two verses of this short passage. As soon as Judas is gone, Jesus says, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once”
John’s Gospel does this a lot: “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” or “abide in me as I abide in you”. John’s Gospel was written partly to make very clear that Jesus was both divine and human - both earthly and heavenly - sarx and pneuma - body and spirit. Because at that time in the late first century the gnostic Christian Jews were claiming that Jesus was entirely divine and that his body was merely an apparition. John adamantly states over and over - beginning with the first verses: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without hm not one thing came into being”
All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being.
This understanding that God is immanent in the world - is the Creator and Sustainer of all life - is present in the physicalness of the earth and all creatures.
Julian of Norwich writes: Nature and Grace are in harmony with each other. For Grace is God and Nature is God. Neither Nature nor Grace works without the other. They may never be separated… That Goodness that is Nature is God. God is in the Ground, the substance, the same that is Naturehood. God is the true Father and Mother of Nature.
The word glorification is defined as: the final dimension of Christian salvation which includes eternal life in heaven and the eternal glorifying of God. Our future reality when Heaven and Earth are one. And we see this echoed in our reading from The Book of Revelation: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away and the sea was no more”
Some Christian groups interpret the Book of Revelation as a prophecy - that it is predicting that Jesus will come again in glory and restore everything with no help from us…as if by magic. But this idea denies the fact that God is here with us now - even in this troubled time and that we are meant to live into God’s glory by how we participate with each other and with God and with God’s creation.
A few weeks ago I had an opportunity to teach about God and Creation to a few teenagers who were about to be confirmed. When I arrived at the church they had already been there for a few hours and I could see they wanted to just be done with this already. I talked with them a little about transcendence and immanence and how before the advent of printing, nature was seen as a revelation of God - and that after books began to be published Scripture was seen as the primary revelation of God.
I could kind of see their eyes glaze over.
But then we went outside and I took them around the church grounds and pointed out violets and chickweed and speedwell and plantain and garlic mustard and onion grass and white clover. And I talked to them about how these plants grow according to the needs of the soil and the needs of the creatures - including us - who need them - that they grow spontaneously as gifts from God.
I think that sparked their curiosity - I hope so…
Jesus says to his disciples
I am with you only a little while longer. You will look for me.
He speaks tenderly, lovingly
Where I am going you cannot come.
This will not feel like glorification to the disciples. They are likely confused - they are expecting an outcome of triumphant victory and are getting an inkling that that isn’t how this is going to go. They listen - maybe not understanding, perhaps afraid knowing that Judas was off to do something nefarious. Not knowing yet about - the cross - death - and the resurrection
Jesus knows he won’t be with them much longer
And when we are with someone who knows they are nearing death this is a very sacred time - A time to say all of the important things. The tone of things changes and the love gets really strong.
Jesus gives them a new commandment
The command to love one another is not new. In Leviticus 19:18 it says clearly: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”
The difference here - the new thing - is that Jesus says that the new commandment is to love one another - just as I have loved you. An agape love.
The perfect love that God has for us - a sacrificial love, a sacred love
Love, not as feeling but as virtue - something that must be practiced
A love that deepens our spirituality
An all-inclusive love that leads to Koinonia - fellowship, community, the body of Christ
Jesus says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples
The new commandment is not about what we believe but about how we live. It is about relationship and spiritual friendship
This love is a way of life - not sentimental or prettied up - but a way of life that changes us. We cannot receive it in full unless we give it fully to others - especially those we have ‘othered’ or those who have injured us. Who are we for and who are we against? Who is in and who is out? It is so easy to hate Judas - but without the betrayer there would be no crucifixion and without the crucifixion there would be no resurrection. And Jesus washes the feet of all of the disciples - including Judas - in a radical act of love
As I have loved you - love one another
As Jesus loved Judas - love those who are difficult to love, listen to those who believe differently, be curious about where our opposing viewpoints can meet in dialogue to bring forward a new communal truth - a truth with agape love at its center - a truth that praises God and God’s creation as our Psalm does today.
Praise the Lord. All created things are called to praise God.
And the act of praise is beneficial for the one praising just as the practice of love benefits the lover. Religion is partly about engaging in practices that change us.
When we see something beautiful in nature - in God’s Creation - a wild animal, a rare or beautiful plant, a constellation, a cloud formation, a sunrise, wind on water, the ocean, we slow down, we give thanks, we praise - we resonate in the beauty and wonder of these things.
A Jewish preacher and poet in the 11th century Rabbi Meir ben Yitzhak Nehorai wrote about Praise: “If all the heavens were parchment, if all the trees were pens, if all the seas were ink, and if every creature were a scribe, they would not suffice to expound the greatness of God”
It is odd that in this morning’s gospel the focus is on the last supper since we are in the midst of Eastertide
In the early weeks of the easter season we have stories of the resurrected Jesus and now we are returning to the last supper - a moment that anticipates the crucifixion. We are five weeks into the Easter Season - a time that Catholics call the mystagogia. It is the time that the disciples walked with Jesus after the resurrection until the time of the ascension and then awaited the descent of the Holy Spirit. This is also a time of anticipation.
We too can engage in the mystical practice of this time and grow in our discipleship.
Rowan Williams writes that “To grow as a disciple is to take the journey from understanding into faith, from memory into hope and from will into love”.
These practices, these ways of walking in love, in faith, in hope, with praise and thanksgiving, seeing each other as brother and sister, caring for God’s Creation with reverence and joy - these are the keys to the new heaven and the new earth.
I will end with a quote from Walter Bruegemann:
He writes,“This is an invitation to tilt our life toward the powerful reality of God. It is our life’s work to so tilt our life…. Our lives belong to God and exist for God’s wondrous purposes. That is the good news. Our task of faith is to find ways to lose our life in joy and obedience, in praise and prayer and to find what life gives us beyond our best hope”.
The notion and practice of physical touch in public settings has been under scrutiny for some time now. Long before the pandemic made touch an individual and communal public health no no, touching others who are not family or close friends in public was an awkward and dicey proposition given concerns over maintaining and respecting appropriate personal space boundaries. Covid was the last stake in the coffin. The Fist and elbow bumps became de riguer, a minimally invasive quasi touch just a step above an air kiss.
But, thankfully, don’t count out authentic and appropriate touch, it seems to be making a comeback, albeit in measured ways.
All this angst about the limited ability to do something like put a hand on the shoulder of a colleague or a parishioner in crisis made me realized just how much the practice of ministry has been altered over the last few years.
At times, physical touch is an important aspect of ministry, especially in the course of healing ministries and the laying on of hands. I recall the time years ago when I was involved in lay ministry in my longtime parish in Rockville, Maryland, a woman named Kaye who was in her eighties ran our healing ministry which included offering prayers during service in the side chapel. She was what you call an old school prayer warrior who came out of the rural church. Picture Robert Duvall as the fiery evangelical minister in the movie the Apostle who would pulled over at a roadside crash and prayed over the barely surviving crash victims.
Like that fictional champion of prayer, Kaye packed real doozies of prayer intercessions. You felt the heat come through her hands on your shoulders or on your head. She was a truly a healer in word and through the simple physical presence conveyed through her hands.
The experience recently with the slow but sure reemergence of physical touch as we emerge out of the pandemic reminded me that touch is relevant to healing and human well being at all stages of life, especially in the first few years of life.
Now to the gospel and the picture inserted in your bulletin. I decided to blow out our color printing budget for the year and insert a page. The painting is called the “Return of the Prodigal Son” by the Dutch master Rembrandt. As the title suggests, it portrays the parable of the Prodigal Son which was our gospel reading today.
While he passed away some years ago, many of you know that I consider a Henri Nouwen to be one of the finest spiritual writers of our day and a key spiritual companion of mine via his writings. Fr. Henri was a theologian and not an artist, but among his many gifts, he had the ability to see spiritual nuances and details in paintings. I dare say that he could run circles around anyone including PHd’s in art history when it came to the spiritual interpretation of art.
The Rembrandt grabbed his attention. Henri found himself immersed in the painting, even inserting himself in the frame at times.
In particular, he was drawn to the Father’s hands which are draped around the Son, the ragged, one shoe on, disheveled figure kneeling really supplicating himself before the Father who is clearly moved.
As a brief recap of this parable, we recall together that the son had demanded his inheritance and gone off to live a life filled with wine, women and song in a far off land. The ask was a huge insult to the Father and equivalent to wishing that he was dead in the culture of ancient Jewish Palestine. Of course, as is always the case in these instances, the errant and reckless son ran through his cash and found himself destitute without anything to eat or any shelter. He decided to come home and beg his Father to hire him as a lowly servant.
Upon seeing his son in the distance, the Father runs to meet him with open arms. In the painting the Father, embraces the lost son with hands upon his shoulders. And he kisses his Son.
That the Father laid his hands on his wayward son and then kissed him would have been a huge shock to all those in eyeshot.
Especially his elder son, the one who quickly became resentful of all this embracing and loving up on his younger brother.
And then when the Father extends the sentiment of the embrace towards the lost son by ordering up a big Feast, the elder son was furious.
Nouwen was gripped (so to speak) by the qualities of the Father’s hands as portrayed in the Rembrandt. He wrote: “in them mercy becomes flesh, upon them forgiveness, reconciliation and healing come together, and through them, not only the tired son, but also the worn out Father find their rest.”
Henri had himself had an experience which spoke of the importance of this kind of blessing. He was the priest at L Arche a home for profoundly disabled. Once after the Eucharist, a young man came to him and said bless me Henri. Henri gave him a perfunctory crossing, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The young man protested. “No Henri, not like that. I want a real blessing.” Henri paused and then embraced the young man and held him while he blessed him. “Yes, Henri, that is a blessing.”
In the parable, both the elder and younger son find themselves at a distance, you might say exiled by different types of prodigality, which moves each away from their true inheritance--which is to be blessed.
The younger son is the prodigal who spent wastefully and without restraint.
The elder son is the prodigal who works only out of obligation and who has stored us massive amounts of resentment.
In this telling, the break, the exile is about their distance from blessing, a tragic but common self-imposed state of exile.
But what is also clear from the text and from the painting is that the Father is willing to embrace both sons if they turn to him seeking a blessing.
The Father longs to have each back in his loving arms, with his hands draped upon each of them. No explanation needed. The Father is not looking for apologies, he just wants his children back in his arms.
The Father welcomes each of us a sons and daughters who are called out the self-imposed exile of either reckless self-indulgent wastefulness or alternatively of resentful, joyless obligation into the life exemplified by the Father, whose is the figure who holds all things together through compassion, vulnerability and forgiveness.
Over the past two years and perhaps going back further as I said earlier, I believe most of us have missed human touch and basic physical connection. Zoom is great, fist bumping is fine, but from the time we are babies on, we are hard wired for real touch. Touch is holy as blesses us and makes us feel safe, wanted and loved.
Rembrandt masterfully captured the image of the Father’s hands which paint a picture of a God longs to hold us and tell us that we are home.
I pray that each us claim our blessing from the God who will not force us to claim it, but who broods over us and gently gathers us under the shelter and shadow of her wings.
I don’t know for sure, but I suspect few here have experienced the disappointment of finding a net empty after an entire night of fishing—for a living. That experience, is pardon the expression, a different kettle of fish from recreational fishing. While we may not share this particular predicament of the disciples, most of us do know what it feels like to put all our effort into something only to have that effort to yield nothing. We might have poured out ourselves into something or someone without much to show for it in the end. As fisherman on a small but relatively densely populated lake with many competitors, the disciples lived with the real possibility of an empty net all the time.
Even in the best of times, fisherman on the Sea of Galilee eeked out a bare bones subsistence from their fragile little open air boats. With survival a daily grind, empty mouths always on their minds, and with no safety social safety net, they would not have come back to shore with empty nets if they thought there was catching anything, even a small haul. Jesus saw the boats on shore and the disciples cleaning their nets. Knowing all was not lost, he asked the disciples to go back out into the deep and cast out the nets one more time. It should be noted that the deep signified the dangerous and chaotic part of the lake. “Jesus, we have been fishing non-stop for 14 hours.” They all KNEW this was a futile attempt, a wild goose chase. Yet, the disciples had seen Jesus do amazing things already, so likely grumbling they set out on the water once again. The net was cast. In the blink of an eye all things would change, because to their surprise the nets were filled with a teaming catch which strained the nets and swamping the boat.
They had experienced God’s abundance with their own eyes and in the resistance meeting their arms as they hauled up a massive catch. It was beyond something they could have imagined in their wildest dreams. On that boat, an extraordinary event occurred through a very ordinary action of the disciples. They knew the waters well and the fish as well--what happened should not have happened in the normal course of events. How did this transpire?
Without Jesus, there would have been no miraculous catch.
At the same time, absent the participation of the disciples, there would have been no miraculous catch. Jesus and the disciples cooperate in netting a huge haul of fish. All this was preceded by an initial powerful draw to Jesus. He has caught their attention—the disciples are in the net of Jesus.
We likely have some reservations around the idea of being caught like fish. Being caught can conjure up images of flapping around without air and suffocating. But early Christians embraced the idea of being fish caught in the net of Jesus.
They did not feel trapped or ensnared by Jesus. They did not envision themselves as flapping around out of water and on borrowed time. Rather, they embraced the idea of Jesus as the fisherman who had raised them up out of the depths of their often dreadful daily existence. Jesus working through the Holy Spirit had drawn them into a new plane where it was possible to live life in anew. They embraced the death of old ways in favor of a new way, modeled after Christ. Christians so closely identified with fish, that images of fish would come to represent the church as a secret symbol during the persecutions. Early Christians clearly understood that a relationship with Christ meant being caught up and transformed.
What are the signs of a being caught up by God? In this passage, incredible abundance and great joy?
But we know that it is also possible for us to miss out because we don’t allow ourselves to be caught by Jesus, so we cannot in turn realize full nets in cooperation with Jesus. This is a joint venture operation folks. God allows us freedom to choose; freedom to be caught up in God’s love or not. How might we position ourselves to be fully in the transformative, peace and joy of Christ? Today’s gospel text gives us some strong clues and a blueprint for being caught upon in the love of God.
First, we need to put the effort in. It would have been easier for the disciples to ignore Jesus and to stay on the shore. But they needed to put the work in. How often in life might we miss out because we cannot muster enough courage and guts to go out on the water again?
Secondly, very often, the Spirit often moves us forward in very challenging circumstances—like venturing out into the deep, chaotic places of life and witnessing them turn into places where abundance happens. Put another way, the present reality is not necessarily the permanent reality—the future can change in unexpected ways guided by the Spirit, in ways beyond all our rational expectations or human hope. God can do such things.
Since March 2020, we have been living in a period where our nets have come up empty at times often because of the challenging conditions of pandemic and related social strife. We have had to cancel, postpone, shrink and give up many things. Many other staples in our lives have been altered, possibly for good. This is true of life in the church and in most all spheres of life. Efforts have often yielded no or little results during this time. There has not been one blanket reaction to this time. But it is common for many to exhibit fatigue, discouragement and at times anger.
Today’s gospel serves to remind us that Jesus calls us to work with him and the Holy Spirit, and to keep on casting the net out. How we act on the invitation is critical. The big catch is not just all laid out for us—the haul of fish was not just delivered to the disciples. But the text can come alive in our own experience and very likely has for us. Or will at some point.
-You might reflect upon a time when you experienced empty nets and the accompanying discouragement?
-You might reflect upon a time or times when God must have intervened to send you back out on the waters to cast a net for one more try?
-Maybe you experienced a time when after prayer and conversation with God, you were led to place where you net was filled—to overflowing?
If you recall such an experience which transformed sheer emptiness into fullness and wholeness, you might be called to share your experiences with others.
Now, this is a reference that will inspire either ”aha’s” or be a complete miss for some. Remember Sy Sperling of the Men’s Hair Club. The brilliance of that iconic ad campaign was that Mr. Sperling benefitted personally from the club, and out of his enthusiasm he spoke clearly to the world about its benefits. He was not embarrassed to speak of his hair loss and gain. He seemed genuinely enthusiastic. We might consider being the Sy Sperlings of faith, not waxing about our voluminous hair growth (although that can be a very good thing), but of voluminous growth in our peace and joy. And not embarrassed to say so.
Once caught up in the life of abundance, we are called to and need to tell people how the Spirit has benefited, made our life fuller, and brought us to the love of God, of which there is no higher love.
"Barrenness is a Heavy Burden to Bear" The Reverend George C. Wong Sermon November 14, 2021 1 Samuel 1:4:20 & 2:1-10
The inability to have children is a crushing burden to those who want children. I can tell you from personal and professional experience that it remains devastating in our day and time, but the degree of associated pain was excruciating in ancient Israel. In that culture as in many others, the absence of children was assumed to be a sign of God’s deep displeasure which was evidence of the lack of worthiness and faithfulness of a person. Often, women bore the brunt of the stigma, because if he could afford it, a man could take another wife and eventually father children.
Penninah, the other wife who could bear children, taunted Hannah intentionally making her life miserable at every turn. Not being able to conceive meant that Hannah had no real future both in terms of bloodlines and in terms of her familial and communal standing. She was given a life sentence without hope of reprieve or pardon.
Hannah is deeply distraught. Her husband, Elkanah, adored her and attempted to help Hannah. He starts off well by asking her:
Why do you weep?
Why will you not eat?
Why is your heart sad?
But his efforts fail badly when he makes the help he extends about himself:
“You have me—isn’t that enough, more than ten sons?
Not good, Elkanah.
Hannah remained faithful. At the temple of Shiloh, she weeps bitterly while praying fervently. She tells God that if she is given a child, that she will offer him up to be a Nazarite, a very devout adherent, devoted entirely to the temple rituals and practices.
She prays with so much fervor that Eli, the high priest notices her from afar and for no good reason, immediately assumes that she is drunk.
He confronts her and tells her to put away her wine.
She explains that she is not drunk but that she is a deeply troubled woman.
Eli sees that she is sincere and changes his tune, in a sense having to quickly reflect on his own shortsightedness—he is brought up short, and changes course quickly. He blesses her and asks the Lord to hear her prayer. “Let the Lord find favor in your sight.”
The cloud of hopelessness pierced, Hannah’s countenance was no longer sad. Soon after she conceived a child, whom she named Samuel which means “one from God.”
Our second reading recounts Hannah’s song which starts off with effusive praise: “My heart exults the Lord.” It is also a rebuke to the proud and haughty. It describes how God will vanquish the powerful and bring the rich low, will raising up the poor.
God turned the world upside down, lifting up the lowly like Hannah. Hannah exalts that God has responded and made things right.
What does this passage say about faithfulness and the prayers of the devout? It suggests that God hears our prayers and responds in ways that we don’t expect or cannot imagine. We cannot always anticipate or fathom what God is up to in our lives, as God acts very often in unexpected and unlikely ways.
Accepting that there is a great amount of mystery in God’s involvement in our lives, what it does say is that we God acts to give new life through God’s blessings.
By answering Hannah’s prayer, God works to create new blessings that will beget further blessings, and life abundantly. Samuel would go on to give his blessing to the first King of Israel, Saul, and to David.
This rich text might be distilled down to primary takeways: the lowly and despised are the apple of God’s eye. The Hannah’s of the world should take heart and remain faithful. Keeping close to God even in the darkest of circumstances is well advised.
And, then, there is a message for the Penninahs’ of the world, who have the power and sanction to torment, disparage, and taunt. Simply put DON’T do it—it is not what God wants of us and for us.
There is also a message for those who find themselves attempting to help a loved one like Elkanah. Help by all means but do not TELL someone how they should feel especially if you position yourself as the saviour in that conversation, as did Elkanah.
And if you are Eli, counseling others when in a position of authority or greater power, do not assume things based on a superficial or self-serving read of the situation. Sit and listen. Say nothing mostly and do no harm first.
If God prioritizes the beaten down and downtrodden, it follows that these same people and groups of people should be the apple of our own eye and the recipient of compassion and care… especially when our care runs contrary to prevailing societal values which almost always privilege the powerful, the dominant and the rich.
Finally, at times, we are reminded that new beginnings nearly always come out of the depths of despair. They often come out of the stuck places which seem to be hopeless and dark. The birth pangs are awful but pass giving way to new life which endures and which begets even more life and more blessings to come. This notion is also described in the gospel which describes the birth pangs in a more cosmic sense, rather than on a personal dimension. But the sense is the same--God is at the heart of the New Creation.
As we move into Advent shortly, I pray that we each reflect and examine our own conscience and behaviors; let us always side with those brought down low and those brokenhearted and let us always be open to bearing blessings into the world for our sake and the sake of others.
The Rev. George C. Wong Sermon for the 5th of September, 2021 - Mark 7:24-37
‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
‘Why do they make good neighbors?
Isn't it Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
“Mending Wall” by Robert Frost.
I don’t know where Mr. Sutton, my 7th grade English teacher is today , but I am sure he would be happy that I remembered the Robert Frost poem.
The poem came to mind because the notion of fences and boundaries have loomed large in my head of late.
This past week, the water that surged across town did not know it had boundaries.
The downpour meant that lines we construct were breached in many places, sadly sometimes with disastrous consequences for those who lives on or near these boundaries and borders.
Something in nature doesn’t love a wall or a boundary imposed on it. Nature doesn’t always recognize flood plains or river beds in a way we desire.
Today’s gospel invites us to reflect upon boundaries and borders we impose and put so much faith in.
Crossing the border into Gentile territory, Jesus has left for Tyre. He would not have been particularly welcome there as a poor, itinerant rabbi. He had crossed the border and was a long way from home. You could imagine some folks saying: “Son, you aren’t from these parts are you?”
Jesus encounters a woman from the area who crosses a number of physical, religious and cultural boundaries. A woman, a gentile and the mother of a daughter believed to be possessed by demons, she had no business speaking to a foreign holy man directly.
Both Jesus and the woman are both breaking all the rules and crossing very marked off boundaries of the day. They met in a sort of no man’s land, where both were out of place by the standards of the day.
The woman begs Jesus to cast out the demons from her daughter.
Jesus curtly, perhaps even rudely, refuses by telling her that it is not fair to take food meant for children and to waste it on someone like her daughter.
But the woman did not hesitate to push the envelope further. She responds sharply to Jesus that even dogs gather up the crumbs from under the table.
Many of you know that this passage is the basis of the Prayer for Humble access.
I know some cringe at the prayer. Some say it paints humanity as unworthy, no better than dogs. But I believe the reservations about the prayer are based on a misconception about the intent and meaning of the original passage.
In the gospel text, Jesus engages in this exchange and initially challenges her worthiness in order to allow the woman to make her claim as one who is worthy.
And Jesus also wanted to make a point to everyone else who judged the woman and others hewing to the conventional wisdom who would have judged many as having little worth—the poor, the sick, the foreign, the widow, and those of dubious lineage.
The woman stood up for herself and her daughter. She drew up her courage and dared to contend with God.
Her actions spoke of her both her courage and humility because she knows she and her daughter deserve help and she knows that she needs help from God. Reversing his initial course, Jesus applauds her faith and heals the daughter.
In this light, we might read the Prayer of Humble access in a completely different, more hopeful way, which is to say that we can come to the table, that is to God, with all our flaws and hurts AND claim our space there with confidence. We seek out Jesus with humility knowing we are in need of God in our lives; and as people who are worthy of God’s care.
God constructs no walls between the divine and his people regardless of gender, race, wealth, physical and mental disabilities.
If God has not devised such walls. Then are we being faithful when we construct walls to hold out others, to separate us from those we deem less worthy or unworthy. You might read the passage from James if you want more on the consequences of doing so.
Sometimes our own brush with challenges softens our heart and increases our awareness of how foolish and prideful it is to elevate ourselves above others and how dangerous it is to judge harshly. I had an encounter many years ago, which made a lasting impression me.
I worked at a litigation consulting firm part time while in graduate school.
There was an invisible but nonetheless real line between two groups at this firm. The professionals were upstairs while the hourly legal data processors were downstairs. I met Irv at the food truck, a.k.a. affectionately as the roach coach. The truck was a kind of neutral zone where the professionals and the coders mostly ignored each other but sometimes mingled. I didn’t know any better so I starting talking to Irv, a data entry clerk.
Irv was well spoken and dressed professionally as if he was going to a board meeting. Long story short, Irv told me that he had been diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease years ago. He was hospitalized and needed very costly treatment. He ended losing his job. His wife left. His savings gone, his large suburban home was foreclosed on.
He told me that for years he lived and slept under the freeway overpass not too far from the office. For those of you not familiar with LA freeways, they are often elevated and have ramps under which people sometimes find shelter. In such a space, he lived day by day out of a shopping cart and a cardboard house.
Somehow after many years, he connected with my boss and was hired as a data entry clerk. The job didn’t pay that well, but he had a small apartment and was rebuilding his life bit by bit.
To my surprise, he was not bitter and he also admitted that he wasn’t always his best self during those years. He said he didn’t always exhibit the clearest or best judgment as his former life crumbled before his eyes.
What I remember most is that he said he always felt like the same person and tried to maintain his dignity, even at his lowest point. He did not say but, sadly, I am sure that others did not treat him so kindly. As far as society was concerned, Irv ceased to exist in those margins, the hinterlands. His experience, changed the way he viewed others—he was much less prone to judge others so quickly and easily.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is crystal clear about his feeling about the walls we construct to hide and separate people from ourselves, to denigrate people and to make ourselves feel safe or superior, which goes against the grain of the gospel and on top is not effective or viable anyway.
I think Jesus would say that Robert Frost was spot on:
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
The Rev. George C. Wong Sermon for the 1st of August, 2021 - John 6:24-35
“All things come of thee, of Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”
At the offertory, which ushers in the Great Thanksgiving, in these words or similar words, we acknowledge that all things come from God and that we are invited to respond by giving back freely and generously to God.
We hold firm to the belief that God grants us gifts for the purpose of giving life to each of us, our community AND the world.
Our first reading from 2 Samuel is a case study in the use of the gifts of God. Or perhaps it is more about exactly what not to do. David had received much from God, being raised up from being a lowly shepherd (which was bottom of the barrel low) to being the King of Israel.
David spies Bathsheba bathing. He is then driven by lust, and commits adultery with her; she becomes pregnant. At the time, Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband is in the field fighting for the country.
David orders him back from the battlefield. He wants him back home so that others think the baby is Uriah’s. Upon his return, Uriah does not visit Bathsheba as David had commanded, not willing to have the comforts of home while his troops are fighting. David then sets up Uriah and he is killed on the battlefield.
What do we take-way from such a lurid tale of lies, deceit and murder?
For one, it is hard for us to understand, but King David did not break the law because a person anointed King could essentially decide to do anything and remain above the law.
The issue, of course, came between God and David.
God had raised him up to be King. God held back no worldly glory and honor to David as chosen one, anointed to be the Shepherd King.
David had taken his power and position and using get what he wanted and to commit murder.
Much to David’s credit, once confronted by Nathan, he repented. Psalm 51 is attributed to a repentant David who turns back to God and who is forgiven and redeemed. David goes on to be the all-time great of Jewish Kings. There is good news here--God leaves a generous and easy to find door back home to truth and peace.
Fast forward many years to the community at Ephesus. The reading from Ephesians reveals that the giving and sharing of gifts in a thriving Christian community is about the building up of the community for the sake of Christ. Each member has specific gifts—there are apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers, and pastors. Each of us is blessed with roles and a set of gifts.
Each member gives out of the gifts they are granted by God, not for recognition, or to fulfill their own vision of the way things should be or to feed our ego, but for the building up of the body and for the unity of the body.
Speaking the truth in love, each member works toward promoting the health and welfare of the larger community. While recognizing and lifting up the gifts of each member, it flies in the face of individualism. True community cannot thrive in a culture of me first or in a setting where we demand things on our own terms and to our own liking. Offering back the gifts of God is a call to be countercultural and to break the bounds of the expected norms. Just as David was called to work for the benefit of his people, each of us is gifted and called to work primarily for the benefit of the community in Christ.
The readings from Samuel and Ephesians are pretty clear illustrations of what is expected: the gifts God has granted to us for the building up of our own spiritual life and for building up of the people of God.
The gospel reading from John approaches gifts from a uniquely Johanine perspective. The text affirms the themes of the other readings, which is that we are to remember God’s desire for us to use the gifts we receive are meant for the life of the community of faith, even if that would mean defying cultural, political or economic realities and norms. You might wonder, if God would desire that an uber-wealthy person launch a personal rocket into space for their satisfaction and fame, or help those in desperate need?
One of the central themes of the gospel of John is that God’s ways and God’s concerns are different from human ways often characterized by violence, divisions and an ethos of scarcity.
-The Samaritan woman receives the water of life, despite being a despised outcast. God cares not a whit about the human views on race, gender and social standing.
-The 5,000 and more are fed with 5 loaves and a few fishes. God transcended the seemingly cast iron bounds of scarcity and of limitations. Jesus builds on these themes of transcendence. Manna comes from God.
God gives us the gift of life. It came to the Israelites in the desert.
Don’t try to store it up.
Don’t try to hoard it.
That would miss the opportunity to trust in God and in God’s gifts given that we might have more life.
Then, we come face to face with the most radical and impactful gift of all. Jesus is the gift of the bread of life. And, we live fully by taking Jesus into our bodies, hearts and minds.
The concept is so far out there and beyond any human ways of thinking because it comes from God.
Sharing and eating the simple bread becomes a means of glimpsing the eternal. This is why we say when we come to the communion table that we are invited to the heavenly banquet. We come in the here and now with the understanding that the gift of the body of Christ in the present, points to the life eternal, the life everlasting.
We, as the faithful body of Christ, are invited to understand that everything we are given--our lives, our talents, our money, our love, our intentions are meant like the Eucharist, and like all good gifts from God, are meant to point back towards God. We cannot, as the people gathered in today’s gospel did, overlook the importance of signs that point to God.
Instead, we are called to recognize as a body of faith rooted in the promises of eternal life that:
“All things come of thee and of thine of own have we given thee.”
Peeka Trenkle's Sermon for Pentecost 7, July 11,2021
Rev. Ken Boccino Sermon for Pentecost 5, June 27, 2021
O Lord, give us wise, patient, understanding, devout, faithful, and courageous hearts. Fill our souls with devotion to your service in faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Good Morning and Happy Belated Father's Day! I'm sorry that I was not be able to be here for service last week, but I was on a bit of a Father's Day 'adventure' spending time with my family down in Virginia. I will touch upon that a little later in the sermon as the reason we were down there ties beautifully into the messages in today's readings - for which I'm so glad. This is a story I very much want to share. But before I move into storytelling, I would like to touch on today's readings.
While I was hoping for one of those Sunday's where the readings fit together nicely with a prominent theme running through the Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel readings - these readings is not one of those times. However, I'm very thankful that this excerpt taken from Paul from 2nd Corinthians does not require a Thomas Cranmer secret decoder ring. Thomas Cranmer was theologian and a leader of the English Reformation in the Church of England's spilt from the Roman Catholic church.
In our Old Testament reading, not yet King David returns from battle and hears of the death of King Saul and Saul's son Jonathan. These verses are a very moving lamentation where he expresses his heartfelt grief. Saul was courageous and generous king, but like many of the kings before and after him did not always obey God's commands. However, Saul did play a major role in Israel's history and in David's own life and was also his father-in-law. David followed Saul to become king over all Israel.
In today's reading from Paul's Epistles, he is writing to the people of Church in Corinth. As we can see in the first verse in this section, that Paul appears to be pleased with the actions his sisters and brothers are taking to grow in their faith. He acknowledged that they are 'excelling' in a number of virtuous practices - faith, speech and eagerness. As they grown both individually and as a community, Paul wants to ensure that they also grown in one other way - in generosity. He urges them to continue to be industrious and finish out the work that they all set out to do in terms of their commitment as followers of Jesus Christ, but also in their daily work and routine to be able to provide for themselves to carry out their spiritual tasks. In addition to caring for themselves, Paul also encourages (and distinctly calls out that he did not "command" them) the faithful in Corinth to be generous to those in the community who may be in need. He circles this back to the ultimate generosity of our Savior who had so much to give and essentially gave it all away by dying for us on the Cross. One who was so rich gave up everything for you and me. While Paul did not ask the people in Corinth to give up everything, he did ask that there be a "fair balance" in giving and receiving.
Finally we have another "loaded" gospel where 2 separate (and possible unrelated) stories are brought together into what seems to be a single story. Jesus is teaching near the Sea of Galilee when Jairus, a leader from the local synagogue pleads with Jesus to come heal his dying daughter.
Jesus agrees and the crowds follow him to Jairus' house. On the way someone from the household comes and informs Jairus that his daughter has passed. Jesus sets to continue on and when he arrives asks why the household is fretting - and he says that she is only sleeping. The crowd taunts Jesus and laughs at him.
Jesus sets everyone outside and enters the house with the family and 4 of his disciples. He orders the child to get up and she immediately begins to walk around.
Between the beginning and end of the story of Jairus' daughter is the story of the hemorrhaging woman. She has been ill for 12 years and no doctor could cure her. She strongly felt that if she did so much as to touch Jesus' clothes, she would be healed, so she does just that. Jesus has sensed that something has happened and asks out to the crowd to see who touched his clothes. The woman, in utter fear, admits to doing so. Jesus says to her that she is cured and to go in peace.
The 2 themes running through today's Gospel I believe are clearly laid out for us today (thank you Paul and Mark). Generosity and Faith. While I can't be sure why these are brought together on this particular Sunday - they are both practices that Jesus taught about and followed during his short ministry on earth and based on that, I believe that he calls us to do the same.
I'm giving thanks to God this morning for weaving these 2 themes together in today's reading as they both relate directly to my Father's Day "adventure" last week in Virginia and for me, there are so few times where there are live experiences that clearly demonstrate the messages we find in Holy Scripture. Please note that this is not a story of an epiphany or a recount of some cathartic or live changing event, but I believe it does demonstrate how through both by being generous and believing through faith how God can manifest God's self in our daily lives in situations that may not always seem optimal or desired. Thank you for letting me share this & I do hope that might resonate with you as well.
So here we go. The story really revolves around my 2 children and another young man. For those who don't know. I have 2 young adult children - Joshua and Alaina. Joshua is 25 and lives in Virginia and Alaina who will be 23 next month and lives at home (for the most part). Weekends she is usually down in South Jersey spending time with her boyfriend, Chris and his family. Enter stage left our 3rd character - Chris.
Josh lives in an apartment in Ashland, VA and works for an engineering company doing project work. It just so happens that he lives in a 2 bedroom apartment by himself (this is a useful piece of information). He was hoping room with a good friend, but then pandemic, jobs, etc., etc., so he lives solo and really has grown very accustomed to it. Who wouldn't?
The best way to explain Josh's and Alaina's relationship is that they co-exist and this has been pretty much the case through middle school. It's not that they dislike each other, but they both feel that they don't have much in common, have different interests and travel in different social circles. I have to admit I was the same with my brothers & I'm very glad we grew out of that. This is also helpful in the context of the story.
Chris just graduated college this year has not been easy. His Mom recently passed and he lost his Dad 4 years ago. His grandparents are looking after him and he has a big family who love and look after each other - in that respect he is very fortunate. He recently got a job in Washington DC in his field of study (something to definitely celebrate - especially this year) and will have to relocate. He starts work in 3 weeks.
Not sure if any of you are starting to put the pieces together, so permit me to continue. We have someone with a new job who needs a place live in the DC area and we have someone else with an extra bedroom. And the plot thickens.
We all (well most of us) agreed that it made sense if Chris could move into the spare bedroom (for an interim period) while he got settled into the new job, built up some savings and determine whether or not he liked this job before committing to any long-term living arrangements. As I mentioned, it seemed like a great idea to everyone - except for the current occupant of the apartment in Ashburn. There was some attempt at rationalization such as having a lot of stuff that needs to be moved out of the room, just getting into a routine that was working out, not knowing this person too well amongst others. Did I also mention that his parents are now kicking in for the 'non second roommate'.
We asked Josh to take some time to thing about it - not that it was going to change anything, but we were hoping that some time and reflection might change is 'outlook' on the whole situation and that it might be good to consider this as we all felt Chris could use a break. That was about 3 weeks ago.
Fast forward to last week. The plans were for us to spend the weekend with Josh and then Alaina and Chris would come down on Sunday so he and Josh could meet and he could check out the apartment and we would all go out for an early dinner.
While Nerissa and I expected that Josh would still have all these reservations that we needed to talk through - to our surprise, Alaina had called Josh the week before and had a very long conversation where apparently they worked everything through. I assume that he got most of his questions answered and concerns addressed. He accepted it and pretty much just needed time with Chris to setup some an understanding of how things would be moving forward.
They seem to hit it off and what's even better is that they both golf, follow stocks and enjoy learning about krypto-currency. Who would have thought.
So as it stands now, Josh and Chris have exchanged phone numbers and talking things through for when he moves in on July 10th.
For me, it's a touching story with a happy ending and thank you for letting me share this family experience.
And finally, how does this relate to today's readings. Through generosity were are able to offer Chris a place to stay so he can have a better transition into his new dream job and having the time to adjust to a new area and finding a place to live. Through our faith and "Let go and Let God" our kids had one of their first serious "big people" conversations on their own - something which I consider a major breakthrough and setting a potential strong foundation for the future. We did not force that conversation - we hoped it would happen on its own. The kids, having the faith that this is all going to work out, despite some reservations is the Spirit working amongst us all into what has the promise to be a favorable outcome for us all.
Somewhat like we see the woman and Jairus in Mark's Gospel, neither were sure about what was going to happen with their interactions with Jesus. The old woman fearful and unsure took the leap of faith and touched Jesus' clothing. Her faith healed her. Jairus, desperate to save his little girl, approaches Jesus in a crowd and pleads for him to save her. And the response of the crowd when Jesus said she was asleep - laughter, but not Jairus.
In closing, I'd like to reflect on what I took away from the readings today and my Father's Day adventure last week.
• Don't push your kids too far - they'll come around
• Have faith in your kids
But more important
• Don't push God or the Holy Spirit
• Have faith in God and the Holy Spirit
My friends, as Jesus said to Jairus after hearing the news of his daughter's death - "Do not fear, only believe." I truly believe that applies to us as well.
The Reverend George C. Wong, Pentecost 4, The twentieth of June 2021
In today’s gospel, we are dropped into the middle of an intense action scene. It is helpful to step back a bit because today’s action scene is part of a much larger unfolding story found in the first four chapters of the gospel of Mark
In a sense, these first four chapters are a two act play with an intermission. In the first act, Jesus comes onto the scene healing, curing and making those on the outside whole and part of the community. In rapid succession, Jesus:
Casts out demons
Healed Peter’s mother in law
Cured a leper and a paralytic
Healed a man with a withered hand
Through this litany of healings, Jesus displayed his power over sin and sickness and all the demonic forces which keep people bound up in misery and despair. Jesus heard the cries of his people and he responded with intimate, personal hands on healings.
Also, in the first act, as in any good play, we have conflict. (Cue the ominous music.) The dark forces of conflict come in the form of a building reaction to Jesus and emerging challenge to Jesus—do recall the saying, no good deed goes unpunished. For instance, after Jesus heals the paralytic, the scribes are already accusing Jesus of blasphemy. The harshly condemn Jesus for healing—who does this man think he is? They don’t hear the cries of the people. Instead, what they see and hear is a challenge to their own authority and their way of doing things.
Then we are offered what is a sort of intermission in the form of a series of parables. These parables are both a break from the intense action and also serve as a response to this rising tide of animosity and of building antagonism among the religious establishment.
You might recall that we heard about the parable of the Mustard seed last Sunday. The very smallest of the seeds can turn into the mightiest of shrubs. Faith can grow from modest beginnings, because God’s power and care for us is the source of the growth. Through this parable and others like the Parable of the Sower, we are given a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven, that realm which is both so close and so far away which is glimpsed best through the lens of faith.
Then, in today’s text, we are thrust back into another fast and furious action scene.
In act two, Jesus and the disciples have set out on the waters of the Sea of Galilee. The situation turns dire when in the middle of their journey, the waves and wind turn turbulent.
A tiny boat is doomed in these circumstances. In real life, there is no Gilligan’s island, an idyllic safe haven for floundering little boats. There is no gin and tonic waiting for us in a cabana.
How did the disciples react in the midst of crisis?
Did they recall the healing power of Jesus?
Did they remember his power to cast out demons?
Did they keep a picture of the kingdom of heaven conveyed by Jesus is the parables in mind?
It does not appear so because, their reaction is one of sheer panic, and fear. You can smell the fear on them. They are overcome immediately begin howling frantically to Jesus that he does not care.
It seems that it was one thing to see Jesus healing others. But when danger affected them personally, they lost their faith in Jesus and of Jesus’s pedigree and ability to save them. In many ways, their fearful, anxious reaction was understandable. Being on a boat on the middle of deep waters is and was inherently risky business. Knowing this, Jesus does not criticize them for being afraid.
Instead he asks them: “why are you afraid?” He did not suggest that there was nothing to be afraid of. The distinction may seem small at first, it is not. When you ask someone what they are afraid of, that is very different from telling them there is no reason to be afraid. And Jesus clearly understands that there was good reason for them to be afraid. But the more important reaction was the one after Jesus calmed the storms.
The unexpected twist is that the disciples did not set aside their fears after the storm is calmed—their fears shift from the storm to the power of Jesus. Upon seeing Jesus calm the storm, they ask about Jesus with a great deal of fear, described as awe in the text: “who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?
Despite the very human foibles of the disciples on the boat, there is very good news in today’s text. Jesus offers the disciples a simple antidote to their fear and still small faith. In the midst of the storm, Jesus remained asleep. He was calm. And he calms the storm by say to sea, “peace, be still.”
Jesus paints a very clear picture of the possibility of peace and stillness even in the midst of raging storms. Jesus is stillness and peace; Jesus begets stillness and peace in the roiling seas, bringing the order and tranquility characteristic of the kingdom to all of creation.
We all know what it is like to navigate the stormy seas.
This past year and going on four months has brought the intense storms of Covid-tide, of rising tides of violence and national discord, of economic turmoil, and for some storms more personal in nature, the loss of jobs, or the death of loved ones or the onset of deep depression or an encounter with serious illness.
It was an unprecedented time and was the backdrop for stirring up much collective and individual darkness in the form of fear, anxiety and greatly diminished hope.
At times, for me, it has felt like being in a boat that was almost certain to be swamped and bashed to pieces.
By early fall of last year, I was at my wits end and confided to my Spiritual Director that I was dead tired, increasingly anxious and that my sense of hope was waning under the weight of the waves crashing against my boat, my person, my being.
On top of all the things affecting everyone in the boat, I became fearful of even venturing out, to a small degree because of Covid but more so, in the face of thousands of incidents of violence, because of being targeted for the way I look with no way to know who might be a danger to me. It was all adding up and I was heavy laden.
I shared this with my Spiritual director who is a wise a compassionate person. She listened carefully. She did not criticize me or suggest that was wrong to feel the way I did. Instead, she asked about my prayer life.
My corporate worship life continued, of course, but even in the face of so many shifts, changes that often was the source of more stress and anxiety and not so much comfort or peace.
Through it all, I prayed during the course of the day, but my prayers had become challenged in the midst of all the trials, tribulations—navigating the great raging waters took my attention and left little energy for much else. I would get in prayers during the day as best I could. But in the end, the prayers had become rote, dry and were not a source of any meaningful sustenance.
Aware that we shared a deep interest in the contemplative prayer, in particular in Fr. Thomas Keating and his work at the Contemplative Outreach Center in Snowmass Co, she proposed that meet online for Centering prayer every morning. For two months, even though she is not a morning person, she called me at 7 am and we sat in silent prayer for 30 minutes and sometimes more.
Her invitation to “be still and know that I am God” was a lifeline.
Why did that time in silence sitting with her with God in our presence mean so much, and helped me turn back the tides, or at least see a more hopeful and fruitful future? Because it helped me to recover a mustard seed size grain of hope in the Kingdom of heaven. It helped me to remember who I was and in whose image I was made.
And that spark of hope the size a mustard lifted me towards a sense of calm and peace—enough to move forward. At times when it seems like our boat will be swamped, our gospel today offers us two crystal clear choices:
We can stand in the stern of the boat alone with our fears and trepidation. We can expect to be dumped into the sea and complain all all the while. We can push our prayer lives to the background.
Or, we can stand in the boat with Jesus and with each other. And we can pray earnestly from our souls whether silently, or aloud. If we choose to stand with Jesus, we will certainly find a great sense of peace and stillness, even amidst the worst of external circumstances. Only then can we truly hear what Jesus is saying and find our own peace AND bring peace to a world in so much pain and exhibiting so much fear, fear which can swamp us just as a series of waves hitting a small boat.
I think there is no better way to conclude this sermon than with a few words from the hymn, “It is well with my soul.”
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
It is well with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Dear Friends in Christ,