<![CDATA[Wicomico Parish Church - Sermons]]>Thu, 21 Sep 2017 01:25:36 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[A BAD RAP FOR 'DOUBTING THOMAS'  (an unseasonal Easter message) John 20: 19-31]]>Wed, 23 Nov 2016 15:55:30 GMThttp://wicomicoparishchurch.com/1/post/2016/11/a-bad-rap-for-doubting-thomas-an-unseasonal-easter-messagejohn-20-19-31.htmlYou know what?   
I think “Doubting Thomas” gets a bad rap.
If immediately recognizing the resurrected Christ as the Jesus of Nazareth was a test, almost everyone failed
.
It's almost comical; it's like an Abbot and Costello movie.
Mary of Magdalene thought he was the gardener.  And when she ran back to tell the apostles, they didn't believe her.  Peter and John ran to the tomb to see for themselves.

The men walking with Jesus on the road to Emmaus talked with him for hours, but didn't recognize him until they sat down and broke bread.

Finally, the apostles fishing did not recognize Jesus on the shore until he filled their empty nets with fish and prepared breakfast for them on the beach.

So I think we should cut Thomas some slack.

In fact, we should probably cut all of the disciples some slack.

Having watched their leader unjustly arrested, scourged, and condemned, they rightfully all feared for their lives.

Hadn't Peter denied Jesus out of fear?

So it's perhaps understandable that it took multiple appearances before they recognized Christ.  But when they got it, they really got it.

Mary ran exclaiming loudly, “I have seen The Lord!”

The disciples hurried back from Emmaus to Jerusalem in the middle of the night to share the exciting news with the apostles.

Peter, couldn't wait for the boat to get to shore, jumping off into the water.

There was no more “doubt.”

Today, we certainly have our share of doubters who don't believe in the resurrection.  But for most Christians, belief is not the issue.

We were taught to believe at an early age and we accepted it.  We are reminded of the story every year.  So instead of moving as the disciples did, from doubt and malaise to belief and joy, many of us move the other way: from belief, followed by year after year of the same story, to an indifference of sorts.  Another year, Another spring, Another Easter.

A far cry from the unrestrained joy of that first Easter.

It's probably unrealistic to think that 2000 years later, we can experience the same joy as the disciples who were there.  But how do we try to recover some of the wonder and magic, the sense that everything has changed?  After all these years, how do we go from simply believing in the resurrection to living the resurrection?

Consider the following modern parable.

There was a group of devout disciples who followed Jesus throughout his ministry in Galilee and Judea all the way to Jerusalem.  They were there on Calvary and they watched their hopes and dreams get crushed on the cross. Out of fear, they left Jerusalem that Friday and went as far away as they could.

They found an isolated place where they could settle down and start their own community.  Now as sad as they were to see their leader, their teacher die, they still held fast to what they learned from him.  They created a community founded on all the principles that Jesus had taught them.  And they lived this way for decades until they were discovered by some missionaries.

The missionaries were startled to learn that this community did not know Christ was risen.  So with great excitement, they shared the glorious news.

Upon hearing this, the community had an enormous celebration.  However, during the party, the leader of the community was strangely quiet.  One of the missionaries asked him what the matter was.

We have modeled our very lives on what He taught because we judged those values worthy of our emulation.  But now, following your news, I am concerned that my children and my children's children may follow him, not because of his life and teaching, but selfishly, because his sacrifice will ensure their personal salvation and eternal life.

Now this is a very thought-provoking parable.  Here we have two communities.

One is living the life that Jesus advocated; sharing, loving one another, taking care of each other even though there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, no jackpot.   Simply because it is the right thing to do.

Their leader fears that having learned of the resurrection and the eternal life it promises, the people will simple stop following the teachings of Jesus.

In other words, having received the free gift of eternal life, the people will cease choosing the harder right values rather than the easier wrong values.

The other community has been given the pot of gold, and yet they did not sit at home with it.  They felt compelled to go out and find people, to share the the incredibly joyful news of the resurrection with them.

I think we can learn from both of these groups about the two greatest gifts ever given—the Incarnation and the Resurrection.

The community that left after Golgotha represents the ongoing Incarnation.

Living as Jesus lived, they are the hands and feet of Christ, his continued presence in this world.  They teach us that resurrection should not stand by itself.

While it is the exclamation point on Jesus' life, we cannot separate the resurrection from the model of life He showed us how to live.

The community of missionaries represent the joy of the Resurrection—the gift that was undeserved, the jackpot.  Instead of simply enjoying their treasure, they felt compelled to leave their homes, travel long distances to spread the joy and the good news.  They remind us that while we won the jackpot, we have to share our treasure with others.

 Easter is not only an opportunity to proclaim that He is risen, it is also a time to start to live as he called us to live.  That means not only sharing the good news of the resurrection, but like the community that left on Good Friday, also being the ongoing Incarnation.

Amen


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<![CDATA[A Most Troubling Story from Scripture    Genesis 22:1-14 (from the archives)]]>Wed, 23 Nov 2016 15:20:10 GMThttp://wicomicoparishchurch.com/1/post/2016/11/a-most-troubling-story-from-scripture-genesis-221-14.html"Life, you see, is also a gift, and it is to be received and participated in with gratitude."

And God said to Abraham:  “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

This is clearly one of the most troubling stories in all of Scripture.  It raises unthinkable questions, particularly for anyone who has lost a child.
 But as horrific as the dilemma is that God placed Abraham in, it is important to heed the opening sentence of the reading:  “God TESTED Abraham.”

This episode is a final test that God uses to validate Abraham’s obedience, and like any test, it is the teacher who knows how the test will unfold, not the one being tested.

But let’s put that fact aside for the moment and examine what human reactions are possible to draw from this story.  I think that there are three possible reactions for a human being to adopt in an effort to rationalize what God appears to be doing here.

The first might be called the path of unquestioning resignation.  How many times have you, in the face of tragedy, been counseled not to question God, been told that we have no right to inquire into the ways God deals with humanity?

In this reaction, we are told to simply submit to the circumstances as acceptance of God’s omnipotence.

I have come to believe that the worst thing to say to someone who is suffering is “that it’s God’s  will.”

Such a statement reflects mind-numbing ignorance regarding the nature of God.

Now there may be wisdom of a sort down the road of unquestioning resignation.   The only problem with it is that it is not Christian wisdom, and in fact, it denies the very heart of our faith.  To put it bluntly, this sort of silent submission undermines the most precious dimension of faith, the belief that God is love.

What’s more, where in Scripture are we instructed not to question God?   Didn’t Job cry out to God for an explanation for his misfortune, didn’t Job attempt to interrogate God?  Didn’t Jesus Himself cry out to his Father for an explanation in the Garden of Gethsemane?

Would the verse, “Ask and it shall be given to you,” ever have appeared in Scripture if unquestioning acquiescence had been the Christian way to meet tragedy?    There is more faith in the act of questioning than in silent submission, for implicit in questioning God is the faith that there is an answer to be given and more important, there is one to give an answer.

The second possible reaction to rationalize what God appears to be doing with Abraham, and with inexplicable tragedy in our own lives  is intellectualizing the circumstances.  Implicit in this reaction is doubt about the very existence of a good and all powerful God.  Intellectualizing rejects faith and revelation and employs solely human reason to explain the circumstances.

This reaction was observed often in interviews with survivors of those lost in the World Trade Center.  The only problem with this course of action is that it institutes a hopelessness that also contradicts the premises of Christianity.

Those premises include the fact that a loving God died on the cross for our eternal salvation and that in sacrificing Himself, God proved that out of death comes life.

So at the end of the day, intellectualizing and unquestioning resignation are both reactions that fail to comply with Christian faith and which ultimately offer only hopelessness in the face of inexplicable misfortune.

The third option is the road of gratitude and it is basic to the story of Abraham and Isaac.

Perhaps the real essence of the story is not another test of Abraham’s obedience to God.  Perhaps what God is really trying to teach Abraham, and us, is that life is a gift—a pure, simple, sheer gift—and that we are to relate to it accordingly.

The promise that came originally to Abraham from God was literally out of the blue. Abraham had done absolutely nothing to earn the right to a land of his own or to have descendants more numerous than the stars.

The promise came as a pure gift from God

Abraham was called on to receive it, to participate in it joyfully, and to handle it with the open hands of gratitude.

And this, of course, is a picture of how mankind is meant to relate to existence itself.

Life, you see, is also a gift, and it is to be received and participated in with gratitude.

But here is the problem.

Mankind had lost this view of life as a gift from God and instead had convinced itself that life was something created by man and woman, and that it was to be possessed by them totally as if it belonged to them alone.   Sound familiar?

This view of life not only served to separate God from mankind, but also to erode the right relationship between God and man.

The whole point in the Abraham saga lies in God’s efforts to restore humanity to a right vision of life and a right relationship to it.

Only when life is seen as a gift and received with gratitude is it the joy it is meant to be.

This, I think, was the truth God was seeking to teach Abraham, and still seeks to teach us.

This was the truth God was trying to emphasize when He waited so long to send Isaac to Abraham and then asked for him back.

The hard lesson Abraham was to learn, and which we too are called to understand, is that all of life is a gift, not something to be possessed by us, but to be participated in with gratefulness.

A story from my youth may help to demonstrate the point I am trying to make.  When I was about 7 years old, one of my father’s friends went out of town for the summer and lent us his small boat.  We used that boat often and because of that boat I learned to love to fish for spot tailed bass.  In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that my love for being on the water was born in that boat.

When my father’s friend returned and took his boat back, I was very upset and I said so openly.

But my dad took me aside and said, “wait a minute, son.  That boat never belonged to us. The fact that we got to use it at all was a gift.  So instead of being angry that it was taken away, we should be grateful that we ever had it at all.”

Life too is a gift, one that we should participate in with joy and ultimately, with gratitude.

Amen
   

©

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<![CDATA[JESUS TELLS A LAWYER STORY]]>Wed, 02 Nov 2016 15:20:26 GMThttp://wicomicoparishchurch.com/1/post/2016/11/jesus-tells-a-lawyer-story.htmlChances are if you grew up going to church you know the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Like all of the Lord's parables, it is a story with multiple layers, some of which are easy to overlook.

For example, many Christians are not aware that the exchange that precedes the parable is between Jesus and a lawyer.  Indeed this fact is so central to the account that we could call it the story of “The Lawyer and the Good Samaritan.”

You see, there's something that happens that prompts Jesus to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan.  The conversation is initiated by        the question: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now when it says “lawyer” here, you should not think of Hubbard, Terry and Britt.  No this is a different kind of “lawyer.”

In this context, a “lawyer” would be an expert in the Law of Moses, the Torah. This would be someone who is very knowledgeable in all the laws given to Israel through Moses, what is recorded in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—all the civil laws, religious laws, ceremonial laws, and moral laws. And this expert in the Law is trying to test Jesus, to get his take on a very important question.

So Jesus responds by asking the lawyer what is written in the law? And he answered, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.'

Now that actually is a brilliant answer, as far as it goes.

It is an absolutely accurate summary of God's Ten Commandments: Love God with everything you've got, and love your neighbor as much as yourself.

And the Lord says to the lawyer, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

But notice what seems to be lurking in the lawyer's question: What shall  “I do” to inherit eternal life?

Like all the Jews, the lawyer believed that by his doing something he could earn his way to eternal life; in other words he believed in works righteousness.

The truth is, what Jesus taught and what conflicted with Jewish law was that there is nothing we can do that will be good enough to merit everlasting life.

Your works won't cut it.

But this lawyer doesn't grasp that yet.  So Jesus wants to straighten him out on this, to disabuse him of the notion that you can work your way up the ladder to heaven.

And maybe some of us need to get that straight too.

Well, this lawyer thinks he does perform the Law well enough. But he wants to be sure he can narrow down who qualifies as his neighbor.  So in order to justify himself, Luke explains, he asks a follow-up question of Jesus: “And who is my neighbor?”

In other words, who qualifies to get my love?  If I can eliminate the bad people, and the disgusting people, and the people who would inconvenience me, he seems to be thinking, then I just might be able to do this.

The Lord answers the lawyer's question with the parable.

The story takes place on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho; this road was, and still is notoriously dangerous. It was a seventeen-mile hike of narrow rocky passages, and of sudden turnings, which made it easy for robbers to take advantage of travelers.

It would have been no surprise to listeners that a human being was mugged and beaten along the side of the road.

And that's all we know about the victim; he was a human being.

We don't know if he was Jewish or a Gentile, if he was wealthy or poor, a good person or a bad person.

We know more about the people who passed him by, or at least we know about their professions.  The first passer-by was a priest, a man of some standing in that society.  The second passer-by was a Levite.  Scholars speculate that there were several reasons why the Levite passed by.

Maybe he was afraid the same fate would fall on him, so he scurries by out of fear.  Perhaps he doesn't know the man's religion or class, and does not see him as a neighbor or deserving of help.

The listening lawyer would have understood the Levite's predicament.

The third passer-by was a Samaritan.  Now recall that Samaritans were  looked down upon and marginalized by the Jews.

Saying a Samaritan passed by was like saying, “the low-life, good for nothing, scum of the earth came by.”

And yet this Samaritan goes above and beyond reasonable expectations in helping the beaten man.  He binds his wounds, gives him his clothes, puts him on his horse, takes him to an inn, pays for his room and food, and then comes back to check on him.

Having told that story, Jesus then asks the lawyer to identify which traveler acted as a neighbor to the injured man.

The lawyer answers “The one who showed mercy.”

“Go and do likewise,” said Jesus.

Now, it's easy to overlook the Lord's teaching points.

The first is that loving our neighbor means actually helping our neighbor, not ignoring his needs.

Second, by trying to qualify who his neighbor is, the lawyer identifies with the priest and the Levite, and thereby condemns himself.

But the third point is easiest to overlook; Jesus Himself is the Good Samaritan.

Like Samaritans in general, Christ is ultimately marginalized and condemned by Jewish authorities.

Just as the Samaritan paid the innkeeper to care for the injured traveler, Jesus paid the price for our salvation.

Now we see what loving our neighbor looks like, both in the story that Jesus tells, and in the story that Jesus lived, in His life and death and resurrection.

Jesus is our Good Samaritan.  He comes to us when we are in greatest need; he has compassion on us, and there is no limit to what He did-and will do-to save us.

Amen.

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<![CDATA[The Radical Demands of Discipleship]]>Wed, 02 Nov 2016 15:14:49 GMThttp://wicomicoparishchurch.com/1/post/2016/11/the-radical-demands-of-discipleship.htmlLuke 9: 51
Today's Gospel lesson requires some contextual explanation. It marks the closing of the Galilean section of Luke and the beginning of the section in which Jesus begins his journey to accomplish His mission on Golgotha.

The section of Luke from verse 9:51 until chapter 20, is called the travel narrative because the Lord “has set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

But this large portion of Luke's Gospel is less about the journey and more about Christ's formation of His disciples, both then and now.

In fact, today's Gospel begins a ten-chapter section in which Jesus is engaged in intense disciple training during which time He endeavors to transform the disciples.

In the opening verses of the travel narrative, the Lord focuses on the radical demands of discipleship.

Now what comes to your mind when you hear the word radical? Do you think of yourself in conjunction with that word?

Or, is a radical someone else who is out on the fringes, advocating extreme behavior, and definitely more strange than you want to be?

To be honest, when I hear the word radical, I do not think of myself. And yet I do consider myself at least an aspiring disciple of Christ.

But that, you see, is the problem the Gospel for today presents;

Christ's call to discipleship is radical in every sense of the word.

There is no way around it; this is radical stuff!

Are you aware that the word radical comes from the Latin radix which means a root? So rather than being something on the fringes that is strange and edgy, it would seem that radical is right at the root of things.  A root, after all, is central to the life of a plant.

Without roots a plant, of course, will die.

Without a radical understanding of compassion and without a commitment to radical discipleship, it seems that our faith will stagnate or at least fail to meet the standards that the Lord sets.

So let's examine the standards for discipleship that Jesus established.

The first quality of discipleship we encounter is hospitality. The Lord sent messengers ahead to a Samaritan village to make ready for Him, in other words to prepare to offer Him hospitality.

Now Luke tells us that the Samaritans refused to receive Jesus, refused to welcome Him, because His face was set toward Jerusalem. We must understand that the Samaritans refused to accept an understanding of salvation that centered on Jerusalem.

Their religious life centered on a Temple on Mt. Gerazim rather than Jerusalem, and this geographical distinction was the root of the animosity between Jews and Samaritans in the first century.

Now the second quality of discipleship that Jesus establishes comes when James and John suggest that they call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans for their inhospitable response to the Lord.

Jesus here rejects violence as a reaction to a refusal of hospitality. Christ offers mercy and compassion in response to rejection, and so teaches disciples to do the same.

Compassion, you see, becomes even more radical when it is offered to people who reject you.

Following the encounter with the unwelcoming Samaritans our Lord encounters three people who were impulsive and reluctant followers.

One man volunteered, saying I will follow you wherever you go. Jesus responded that to follow you must be willing to forfeit a home,   for the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Does the would-be disciple know what he is committing himself to, to give up the security of a home in order to follow the Lord?

Jesus approached a second person with his simple invitation to discipleship, Follow me. The man replied as a good son would when he said, Lord, first let me go and bury my father.

One must here understand that the duty to bury one's parents was binding on all devout Jews.

This seems like a reasonable request, but Jesus replies with an apparent lack of compassion. Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.

What Jesus is saying here is that the priority of service to Christ           be set above every other priority.

What Jesus is actually saying here is that the spiritually dead should bury the physically dead. In other words, those who have not yet committed to Jesus are like the spiritually dead, thus let the dead bury the dead.

But those who have committed to be Christ's disciples are no longer dead and therefore their concern should be with life and the living; with proclaiming salvation through faith in Jesus.

Finally, another man came to him and said, I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at home. He just wanted to tell his family goodbye. What is the harm in that?

Jesus responded with a word that summarizes all of these short conversations: No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. Just as someone who is plowing a field will never do a good job by looking back all the time, so a disciple needs to avoid the danger of looking back.

Discipleship, then, is a relentless commitment to the future, to working toward creating God's kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

What Jesus is telling all of us who would aspire to Christian discipleship is that such a calling requires an unconditional commitment to his radical demands and an unwavering focus on the future rather than the past.

Now Hebrews 11 explains that faith requires a focus on the future, defines faith as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not yet seen.

In the encounters with the three would-be disciples, Jesus is showing us both how to look forward and the dangers of seeing faith as something that allows us to look back.

Faith, you see, always calls us to choose the best instead of the good.

But Jesus did not say, Seek ye first the love of family, or personal security, or competing obligations, all of which are good goals.

Instead, He made the priority very clear: Seek ye first the   Kingdom of God and his righteousness which is the best goal;        and all these other things, which are merely good, shall be added unto you.

So the question that today's Gospel confronts us all with is this, what is your answer to Jesus Christ?

 Amen

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<![CDATA[The Scandalously Good News of the Gospel]]>Tue, 23 Aug 2016 14:12:13 GMThttp://wicomicoparishchurch.com/1/post/2016/08/the-scandalously-good-news-of-the-gospel.htmlLuke 12: 32-40

Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16

I think that one of the highest hurdles that those who would be faithful must clear is the hurdle of perspective. In other words, adopting the proper perspective between the here and now and the hereafter is a very tough challenge.

Concern with the here and now always seems to dominate any efforts we may make to dwell on life after death.

The here and now, of course, is tangible: we can feel, hear, touch and smell it.

The here and now is real, we cannot escape or evade it.

But the hereafter, now that’s something quite different.

Aside from testimonies of near death experiences, the only information we have about what follows death is the New Testament.

And, of course, the New Testament was written 2000 years ago and is awash in mystery and miracles.

Now, it is an axiom of human nature that we fear what we do not understand.

And of all the inevitable events of life, death inspires the greatest fear because we have so little understanding of what it means, what it will entail.

A second axiom of human behavior is that we instinctively feel that we must understand something before we can believe it.

This instinct has been heightened by humanism and the great trust that post-modern mankind places in science.

Mystery and miracles are the first casualties of the insistence that understanding and proof must precede belief.

Now, to be sure, death will always engender an absence of understanding and consequently, fear.

I think that was one reason Saint Anselm said famously: “I believe in order to understand.

Supernatural truths, not revealed by reason alone, are perceived by faith.”

The faulty premise that belief and faith must be preceded by rational understanding is addressed further in the Epistle reading from Hebrews.

In the classic definition of faith, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says this:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

By faith we understand…

Christ understood humanity and He knew what death entailed and He was Himself the proof of life after death.

The Lord’s concern with human fear of death, His understanding of how difficult the concept of life after death was for human beings to grasp, is reflected in today’s Gospel.

The first thing to note about Luke’s account is that aside from the first five words, the entire reading is a quote by Jesus.

There is nothing secondary about this reference to life after death, these are words from the creator of life, this is what researchers call a primary reference.

Make no mistake, this is a quote from the lips of God in human form.

So let’s unpack what Christ says and see how and if it provides insight into death and life after death.

When Christ begins by saying “do not be afraid little flock’ for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” this is what He means.

By little flock He is addressing those who believe in Him, who have access to eternal life.

By do not be afraid, the Lord is saying, do not fear death.

For to those who believe in Christ, God gives the kingdom, in other words God gives eternal life to those who have faith.

Jesus continues: “Sell your possessions and give alms.

Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

What Christ means by his comments about purses that thieves can steal and moths destroy is that accumulation of wealth and material on earth, what this world equates with success, means absolutely nothing after we die.

Rather, the only thing from this life that we can transfer into heaven is our relationships with God and with those we love.

Neither moth, nor time, nor thieves, nor even death, can erase or reduce or minimize or in any way affect love…love you see is eternal.

Those of us who have lost loved ones know the reality of this, while our loved ones may have gone ahead, our love for them remains as vivid as it has ever been.

And since love is eternal, there must be a dimension beyond physical life to accommodate it….that dimension is eternal life in Christ.

The eternal life that Christ promises those who believe in Him after their physical deaths  is wrapped around eternal relationships.

Relationships directly between Christ and those who believe in Him, and relationships between us and those whom we love and have loved on earth.

Those relationships, and the love intrinsic to them, are what Christ means by treasures.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

What is wealth and material possessions and portfolios compared with love?

What is physical life on earth compared with eternal life in Christ?

St Paul captures this concept in his first letter to the Corinthians when he describes eternal life this way: “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived, of what God has prepared for those who love him.”

Now the rest of the Gospel account addresses the urgent necessity to prioritize heavenly treasures over earthly treasures.

Physical death, the Lord points out, can come at any moment, like a thief in the night.

Consequently ordering our lives in the proper priority is a task for the here and now, not to be delayed until we are on our death beds, for we may never actually have time on our death beds.

Suppose that God took you on a crystal ball trip into your future and you saw with certainty that in spite of your disappointments, your failures, your regrets, you could have your hearts deepest desire.

This, you see, is the scandalously good news of the Gospel; that we are guaranteed eternal life with those we love by a sheer, unmerited gift of grace.

Amen

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<![CDATA[What Christ Expects of Us]]>Mon, 22 Aug 2016 15:53:25 GMThttp://wicomicoparishchurch.com/1/post/2016/08/what-christ-expects-of-us1.htmlJohn 10: 11-18

            I have always felt that one of the great deficiencies in Christian preaching is the single-minded focus on what Christ does FOR us with almost total disregard for what Christ expects OF us.
Today's Gospel and Psalm on the Good Shepherd provides a case in point.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
“I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
All the heavy lifting of salvation is done by God; all we need to do is receive it. Is this the totality of the Bible's message?
Much Christian preaching today would suggest that the answer is yes.
But the Gospel this morning provides us more than a description of the Good
Shepherd; it gives us a stark contrast in imagery.
On the one hand we are given the Good Shepherd who is willing to lay down his life for his sheep.  Of course, Christ is the Good Shepherd who is willing to lay down his life for his sheep.
On the other hand, we are presented with the image of the hired hand.  The hired hand neither cares for the sheep nor is he willing to risk anything for them when they are threatened.
Now all too often we reflect on the Good Shepherd imagery as simply a way to describe our Lord, His selflessness, His love, indeed His divinity.
But the description of the Good Shepherd and the hired hand also suggests a
contrast for the way we live our lives.  So rather than the predictable homiletic
praise of the Good Shepherd, I want to explore the guidance that resides in the imagery of today's Gospel.

I freely confess that I love Samuel Clemens' quotes; they are usually funny and
most of the humor hides practical and ethical lessons worthy of study.  Here are a couple of my favorites.
 “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to
open it and remove all doubt.”
“Age is an issue of mind over matter.  If you don't mind, it doesn't matter.”
“If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.”
“Do the right thing, It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”
“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”
I want to frame my sermon with two quotations from secular men; the first is
from Mark Twain; the second from Albert Einstein.
The first is this: “The two most important days of your life are the day you
were born and the day you figure out why.”

There is much to think about in this quotation for the Christian.  Christians
believe that life is a gift from God, and we believe that every life has a
God-given purpose.  So the task of figuring out why we were born is to
discern God's purpose for our lives.
What makes this so challenging is that as we age, God's purpose for our
lives may well change.  It may be enough when we are 20, 30, or 40, you
see, to simply settle for believing in, loving, trusting, and endeavoring to

            obey God.  But as we grow older, as we encounter what Shakespeare called

            the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, our purpose is likely to share

            what we learn in the process with others.

            As we accumulate the products of a successful life, we may well be called to

            use those products in a way that makes life easier for those who are struggling.

            It is incumbent on Christians, I think, to continually consider what God is calling

            us to do at every stage of our lives.  Answers to prayer, for example, likely come

            with a strong hint that God wants us to share what faith and trust in Him, through

            prayer, can do.

            Like Mark Twain, Albert Einstein left us numerous quotes worthy of reflection.

            Though not often as funny as Twain's, Einstein's quotes nonetheless invite us

            to apply their lessons to our lives.  Consider the following statements from the man

            who enumerated the theory of relativity.

            “The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.”

           

            “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are

            evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it.”

            “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.”

            But the quotation that I want to relate to today's Gospel is this: “The great use of a life

            is to spend it for something that will outlast it.”  This applies spectacularly, of course,

            to the life of Jesus Christ.

            But if we believe as Scripture instructs us, that we are created in the image of

            God, in the image of Christ if you will, then we are called to model the life of

            the Good Shepherd.

            Blessings and answered prayers are gifts to would-be good shepherds to be

            shared with sheep.  Just as Christ did, we are called to spend our lives on

            something that will outlast them.

            What immediately comes to mind in this regard is our children and grandchildren.

            Sharing the hard lessons of life, providing help for college, encouraging them to

            heed the wisdom in some of the quotes we have shared are ways to spend our lives

            on things, on people, that will outlast us.

            But I would suggest that sharing what we have learned and continue to learn about the

            purpose of our lives, figuring out why we were born as Clemens encourages us, and

            devoting our lives to something that will outlast them as Einstein counsels are ways

            for us to model the Good Shepherd, rather than just acknowledging what He does

            FOR us.

            AMEN

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<![CDATA[ The Scope of God's Grace Luke 15: 1-3, ll b-32 ]]>Fri, 22 Apr 2016 19:21:18 GMThttp://wicomicoparishchurch.com/1/post/2016/04/-the-scope-of-gods-grace-luke-15-1-3-ll-b-32.htmlThe Scope of God's Grace
Luke 15: 1-3, ll b-32

            Today's Gospel reading is the Parable of the Prodigal Son, perhaps the best known of all the parables.  But ironically, it may be the best known for the wrong reasons.
             So I propose that we take a thorough look at what is the longest parable in the Gospels, and one that occurs only in Luke.


As the first three verses of our reading explains, the Parable of the Prodigal Son responds to the grumbling of the Pharisees.  As was their habit, and a habit we find in many churches today, the Pharisees were looking for ways to exclude people from access to God; in other words making judgments about those who would receive salvation and those who would not.
             In this case they were criticizing Christ for welcoming sinners; clearly the Pharisees believed that sinners should be outside the Temple.
             Christ responds to the Pharisees with three consecutive parables:  the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son.  
             Clearly there is a wide gap between those whom the Pharisees considered lost to God and those whom Christ considered beloved and sought by God.
             Our parable begins with a request from the younger son, the prodigal: “Father, give me the share of property that will belong to me.”
             It was the custom in first century Palestine, and indeed it was Roman law, that property is transferred to heirs only after death.  So in the context of Jewish custom and the law of the land, the prodigal son's request of his father was not only exceedingly brash, it was downright insolent and disrespectful.  It was tantamount to wishing that his father was already dead.  
             What's more, the son's immediate departure, after making the outlandish request, cast aside his obligation to care for his father in his old age.  When he departed for the distant country, he rejected his duty as prescribed by the Decalogue to honor his father.  That duty, therefore, fell to the older brother alone.
             A distant country implies not only geographical separation, but psychological, as the prodigal distanced himself from his father, his brother, and his community of faith.
               What follows is well known to most of us, and in a sense is predictable by any parent who has dealt with a rebellious child.  He loses his inheritance on dissolute living and ends up in dire need.  The prodigal son becomes in essence an indentured servant to a Gentile who raises pigs.
             The symbolism is clear, for him to stoop to feeding what were considered unclean animals by Jewish Law and tradition, was a degradation of the worst kind.  It would be like an estranged child today resorting to work cleaning out sewers to survive.
             At this point in the story, we encounter a controversial line for which there is no clear explanation.  The prodigal son, having reached the lowest point, “came to himself.”
            Some  interpreters conclude that “coming to himself” indicates repentance.  But Luke does not use that word, so we are left to wonder whether the young man is simply in misery from his destitute state, or whether he is committed to amending  his life as evidence of repentance.
             Perhaps the best explanation is that the son realized how foolish he had been and that this constituted a prelude to penitence if not repentance itself.  
             Even the three-part statement he prepared for his father: I have sinned, I am no longer worthy to be your son, treat me like a hired hand, is no proof of repentance for how else could he return home?
             At this point we can see the irony of the title: the Parable of the Prodigal Son, for the parable is not about the son at all, who represents human selfishness.  It is about the father, who represents God.
             Perhaps a more appropriate title would be the Parable of the Waiting Father or the Parable of a Father's Compassion.
             At this point in the story, you see, the actions of the father clearly reflect the divine compassion revealed in Jesus.
             By the standards of this world, even faithful and reverent worldly standards, the proper response to the prodigal son would have been to let him fall on his knees and ask for forgiveness.  At which point the father would respond with words of forgiveness and a review of subsequent expectations to ensure a permanent amendment of life on the son's part.  The son would, in effect, be on probation.
             But that is not what happens; instead the father runs to meet the son.
             This is outlandish behavior—we have a dignified man, a prominent person, wearing a long robe.  In order to run, he would have had to lift the robe, exposing his legs, an act that would have been considered shameful in Semitic culture.
             All this is to convey the unbridled joy that God experiences when one who is lost, whether a sheep, a coin, or a person begins the act of seeking reconciliation with Him.  All this reflects the scope of God's grace. 
             But the story does not end here; for the older son, the one who has remained faithful and dutiful is to be accounted for as well.  The older son's reaction reflects worldly standards, and we who read the story cannot fail to identify with the older son.
             The older son has been hard working and loyal; he has been unfailingly obedient both to Jewish Law and to his father, and we can understand his resentfulness.
             But the father reassures the older son and expresses appreciation for his fidelity.  In his relationship with both sons, the father demonstrates unconditional love.

            The relationship of the father, who clearly represents God, with his sons, is not determined by their character or their actions, but by his.

            God takes the risk of our assuming that His mercy will outweigh His judgment no matter how great our offenses may be, in order to offer forgiveness to create an environment for our permanent transformation to faithfulness. 

            The true lesson of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is not therefore about the son at all;  it is, like all the parables, about the nature of God.

Amen.


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<![CDATA[LOVE:  an ACTION; an ATTITUDE; a BEHAVIOR     1 Corinthians 13: 1-13]]>Fri, 22 Apr 2016 19:10:42 GMThttp://wicomicoparishchurch.com/1/post/2016/04/love-an-action-an-attitude-a-behavior-1-corinthians-13-1-13.html   LOVE: an ACTION; an ATTITUDE; a BEHAVIOR

                                                1 Corinthians 13: 1-13
       
             A Peanuts cartoon shows Lucy standing with her arms folded and a stern expression on her face.
               Charlie Brown pleads, “Lucy, you must be more loving. This world really needs love. You have to let yourself love to make this world a better place.”
               Lucy angrily whirls around and knocks Charlie Brown to the ground.
               She screams at him, “Look, Blockhead, the world I love; it's people I can't stand.”

             I'm sure we all feel that way from time to time, and some of us feel that way most of the time.
               Loving the world in general, loving life, isn't that difficult, but loving the people around us can be a major challenge.
               The reading from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians is typically read at weddings and anniversary celebrations. But, this was never the original intent.
               Instead, Paul was writing a rebuke to a dysfunctional church for their abuse of the spiritual gifts. 
               You see, Paul is arguing that love is an action, not an emotion.
               The kind of love Paul will talk about is seen, experienced, and demonstrated.
               This is contrary to our culture that has come to honor personal feeling above almost everything. We do what we want when we want because we “feel” like it. And if we don't “feel” like it, we don't do it.
               But the passage from first Corinthians is characterized by an absence of any stress on personal feelings. Instead the Apostle is describing what love looks like when it is lived out in the church.
               Since the love Paul advocates is an action rather than an emotion, he goes on to discuss how love should manifest itself.
               Our contemporary definition of love is that it is an emotion or a feeling—we love our jobs, we love football, we love pizza.
               Love, in Paul's view, is a word that can only be properly defined in terms of action, attitude, and behavior.
               Paul has no room for abstract, theoretical definitions; instead, he wants us to know what love looks like when we see it.
               The notion of love as an action rather than an emotion is captured by a comment    from ancient Greece. Dianekes, a Spartan champion at Thermopylae, was once asked what enabled him to act heroically in the face of mortal fear, what allowed him to counter his fear. He answered that the opposite of fear is not courage, the opposite of fear, he said, is love.
               In this case love of fellow soldiers, of friends, of comrades in arms manifested itself in heroic action.
               Paul observes that love is patient. 
               The Greek language has several words for “patience.” One signifies patience with circumstances, while another is used only in reference to patience with people.
               The Lord knows we need both kinds of patience, but it is this second word that is found here. The KJV renders this word “long-suffering.”
               Paul seems to be saying that love doesn't have a short fuse. It doesn't lose its temper easily.
               Now let's face it: we love our fellow human beings because of certain qualities and in spite of others. Patience means we don't allow the “in spite of” qualities to outweigh the “because of” qualities.
               Love as an action means we tolerate the shortcomings of others, in part at least, because we understand that God tolerates ours.
               Paul goes on to instruct us that love is kind. Kindness, however, is not to be equated with giving everyone what he or she wants. Sometimes we refer to the kindness Paul cites as tough love.
               It may seem contradictory, but love as kindness in action may mean forcing an addict to go through the hell of admission and withdrawal.
               Kindness may mean denying a child what they ask for in order to give them what they need.
               Kindness may even mean reporting a crime committed by a friend.
               Kindness means to withhold what harms, as well as give what heals.
               Love is kind, but often tough.
               Paul followed the two positive expressions of love with several explanations of how it does not behave.
               Perhaps the most important description that he offers is that love does not insist     on its own way; in other words, love is selfless, it may even be sacrificial.
               Love is the very antithesis of insisting upon one's own rights. Needless to say, this is a rare quality today.
               Ours is a society in which self-fulfillment is not only tolerated, it is even advocated. You can go to any bookstore and pick up titles like, “Winning Through Intimidation”; “Looking Out for Number One”; or “Creative Aggression.”
               But a self-absorbed narcissistic person cannot exercise love.
               Love is not possessive, demanding, stubborn, or dominating.
               Love listens as much as it speaks.
               Love in action does not insists on its own way. It is always willing to defer to others.
               Anyone who has spent more than a week married to another, understands that compromise and sacrificing our self-interest is essential to sustaining the relationship. 
               This is love as selfless action.
               Paul goes on to explain that love bears all things. I think that the action implied by bearing all things is forgiving one another. Forgiveness, you see, is the transmission fluid that preserves the engine of relationship.
               Forgiveness is what enables people to overlook harsh words said in anger and to refocus on the abiding treasure of the relationship itself.
               A wise man once said that “T here were many times in my life when I was sorry I opened my mouth. But there was never a time when I was sorry I kept silent.”
               Biting one's tongue is great prevention, but forgiveness is the cure for those times when we didn't remain silent.
            Paul's final description of love is that it never ends. That is why love is an action that manifests God's promise of salvation.
               Those we love may die, but our love for them remains as tangible evidence of their new lives in Christ.
               Those of us who have lost husbands, wives, or children know the immortality of love well, for it remains in us a dynamic action that comforts us and inspires us and builds faith in God.
               Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

            Amen.

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<![CDATA[The Fruits of Faithfulness, Obedience, and Penitence- An Advent Lesson from Luke 13:1-9]]>Wed, 13 Apr 2016 15:49:30 GMThttp://wicomicoparishchurch.com/1/post/2016/04/-the-fruits-of-faithfulness-obedience-and-penitence-an-advent-lesson-from-luke-13-1-9.htmlThe Fruits of Faithfulness, Obedience, and Penitence
                                                 Luke 13:  1-9
 If one read only the Gospel lesson for today without any regard for where we are in the church year, it would be easy to conclude that it was Advent
Christ sounds just like John the Baptist: “unless you repent, you will all perish.”   Now to be sure, just like Advent, Lent is a penitential season; that is why the liturgical color for both seasons is violet.
But there is a subtle difference between the two penitential seasons.
  
Advent calls us to be penitent as a grateful response to the gift of Christ's birth.

But Lent calls us to practice penitence as a part of a larger effort to reflect on Christ's suffering and sacrifice for our salvation.

Stated differently, Advent asks that we amend our lives in appreciation for Christ's birth and all that it promised, while Lent suggests that we make an effort to imitate Christ, to practice self-denial as He did, as an appropriate response to His death and its guarantee of eternal life.

But the call to penitence is only a small part of the message of today's Gospel. There are two other aspects of Luke's account that are worthy of our reflection, for they transcend the season of Lent and give us great insight into the nature of God.

The first is Christ's response to a timeless question: is misfortune an indication of sinfulness?

We should keep in mind that during the centuries preceding Christ's birth, that was the premise which Jews believed.  The entire Book of Job addresses this topic as Job's friends argued that even if he didn't recognize his sinfulness, Job's misfortune had to be linked to it.

And yet the narrative tells us that Job was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”

In more contemporary terms this question might be: why do bad things happen to good people?

Human suffering, whether from natural disasters or from man-made violence, always raises questions about God's role in the calculus of life.

Our Lord addresses this question in Luke's Gospel.  “Do you think that the Galileans whose blood Pilate spilled were worse sinners than others?”

Were the eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them worse offenders than others in Jerusalem?”

 “No, I tell you.”

With this emphatic “no,” Jesus proclaims that God does not work his judgment in such ways.  God does not arbitrarily punish some human beings for sin while sparing others.

Instead, God created a world that runs by natural laws, that for all its beauty and goodness, is still subject to extremes of weather and nature.

God gave humanity free will that in spite of all human generosity and compassion, is still subject to pride, greed, and self-aggrandizement that lead to violence.

And that brings us to the second point of the Gospel.  God is involved in the world through His Holy Spirit and that involvement is always geared toward giving human beings a second chance.

Consider the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree.  Now the prophets Micah and Hosea referred to Israel as a fig tree, so Christ's metaphorical use of a fig tree cites the Jews in particular and humanity in general as the fruit of the tree.

Now the fig tree having been given life by God had been in the vineyard long enough to bear fruit.  By fruit, the Lord means faithfulness, obedience, and penitence on the part of humanity.

The owner of the vineyard, who represents God's judgment, complains that three years is long enough to expect fruit and that therefore, he is directing the gardener to cut down the unproductive tree.

The gardener, who represents God's mercy, pleads with the owner to give the tree one more year before he cuts it down. 

The parable explains the dynamic between God's judgment and His mercy. God's judgment will ultimately hold us accountable for our sinfulness, but God's mercy invariably gives us second chances to be penitent.

It also instructs us that the opportunity to repent is not without limit.  The parable's message is double edged.

A merciful God grants us a period of grace during which we have the opportunity to be penitent, not just to express regret for past sins, but more important, to practice an amendment of life.

But the other edge of the blade is that unless we take advantage of God's grace, we will perish.

Now perish does not mean that God will make us targets of natural disasters, disease, or human violence.  By perish, Christ means that we will not enter eternal life, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

By warning that the unrepentant will perish immediately after referring to Pilate and the tower of Siloam, Jesus is not suggesting that sudden calamities are of God's design.

Rather the Lord is warning that since life can be ended suddenly by violence or disease or disaster, it is essential that we not delay penitence.

In the Great Litany we ask God to deliver us from dying suddenly and unprepared. For judgment follows immediately after death, and death cannot always be anticipated.

Christ is clear, calamities are not of God's making.  But calamities do stand as graphic reminders that life is fragile and we may stand before God's judgment seat without warning.

The parable of the barren fig tree reminds us to consider the gift of another year of life as an act of God's mercy.

Christ is not only the means of our salvation, He constantly encourages us to practice penitence, without which we may lose access to that salvation.

The present is a time of grace and divine forbearance.

Saint Paul wrote in Romans that God's patience and forbearance are intended to lead people to repentance.  In other words, they are second chances.

Unfortunately, they can also be misinterpreted as God's limitless indulgence.

The whole notion of penitence in the calculus of Christian salvation is summed up by Miguel Cervantes:  “He who errs and amends, to God Himself commends.”

Amen.

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<![CDATA[The Problem of Suffering]]>Fri, 30 Oct 2015 14:57:42 GMThttp://wicomicoparishchurch.com/1/post/2015/10/the-problem-of-suffering.html In his novel The Blood of the Lamb, Peter deVries observed that what we believe is a function of what we have suffered ...
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