Lent 1, Year C, Sun Feb 17, 2013

Deut 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

I believe it was in 1969, after I had moved to Iran, that my family and I took a car trip from Teheran to the southern coast of Iran.  In those days the trip took several days, and we stopped and stayed with family in cities along the way.

I had never seen such wilderness before.  Coming from New York and New England, I was used to rolling hills and valleys and riverbeds, but they were always covered with lush vegetation and even forests.  As we left the crowded streets of Teheran, we passed almost immediately into wilderness.

The landscape was almost completely barren, revealing the rough contours of the rocks and hills and valleys.  The only vegetation was a few scrawny trees and scruffy bushes.  Between each town and village, there were no gas stations, no convenience stores, no McDonalds. 

The farther south we drove, there were fewer and fewer villages and fewer and fewer other cars on the road.  It became a major event when we passed a car or truck going the other way.  There was even a period of time when we were not sure whether we were actually on a road or not.

Most of the time on that trip, we were a small community of 5 people, quite cozy and quite alone in the little bubble of our car.  We were truly in the wilderness.

One day we drew near to a village just around midday.  The houses in this village seemed to be made from the same material as the earth all around.  The roofs of the houses were dome shaped and small, and looked as though they had pushed up from the ground.  The whole town seemed to be a natural feature of the landscape.

We drove into the village, and stopped in front of a little one-room house.  There was an opening to enter, but no door.  There were rugs on the floor inside.  The woman of the house spread a rug in front of the door, and brought us tea.  Someone went to buy a large flat bread and cheese and fruit. 

In the emptiness of the wilderness, there was hospitality and welcome from strangers.  There was simple but delicious food.  This is the code of the desert.

The family of Abraham and the people of Israel came from a “wandering Aramean” ancestor, who ventured into the wilderness to find a new hope, new future, new calling from God.  Abraham’s father was called to start this journey, but he fell short, and stopped half way.  It was Abraham who completed the journey to the Holy Land, and who received the assurance from God that his offspring would be numerous like the stars of the sky. 

Jesus, also, was led by the Spirit into the wilderness for his own journey of self-reflection and temptations, before he was to begin his public ministry.  His time in the wilderness included the temptation to turn stones into bread, which I imagine might be rather tough and dry tasting, even if Jesus did it.  This would have cut short his experience of the wilderness, before he even had time to address the real reasons for being there.

He was tempted to rule the world, through the worship of Satan, the adversary of God.  This temptation was not only to abandon the love and worship of God, but also a temptation to power that was recognizable and esteemed.  It was a temptation to the easy way of being known and respected.  It would have been an easy road, but it would have meant a complete denial and rejection of his true identity and purpose.

The third temptation was to a public display of his divine authority.  Satan challenged him: “Throw yourself down from the temple!”  The successful completion of this stunt would have brought people running, and created an instant and vast following, but for all the wrong reasons.  Even on the cross, the bystanders taunted Jesus to call upon the angels of God to bring him down and save him from death.  And he did not do it.

During his earthly life, Jesus did perform many miracles, but out of spontaneous compassion, as gifts of healing to others, and not to his own glory. 

There are temptations for all of us in everyday life, as well as during wilderness times.  I expect that here at All Saints the coming months may sometimes feel a bit like a wilderness journey.  I don’t mean that the priests who will serve you here will leave you spiritually barren – far from it! 

What I mean is that the journey may be complicated; it may sometimes seem as though there are fewer gas stations than usual along the way.  There may be a temptation to “settle” for the first possible priest who comes along, yet this may turn out to be something like turning stones into bread.  It may be settling for less than is possible; it may be cutting the in-between time too short.  It may mean settling for stale bread, when there could be a divine banquet.

It may be tempting to try to be a big church, and try to do too much.  There are rich blessings of being small, of working together, being patient, of doing one thing well, and then celebrating what has been achieved. 

It may be tempting to jump to conclusions about what is God’s will for All Saints.  It may be that God’s “will” is not for a specific blueprint to be followed, if we could only just figure out what it is.  It may be that God’s deepest desire is simply to be loved and adored and served in each other and those who are given to us to serve.  It may be that God’s will includes a rich array of choices. 

The wilderness time may also be an opportunity for fallow time, for self-reflection, for new initiative, for new ideas, for an openness of Spirit to new possibilities.  Wilderness time requires that we love one another, that we be patient with one another, that we be always kind to one another. 

Wilderness time requires that we become more aware than ever of our reliance on the loving care of God, who is ever present, ever close, ever faithful.  Even when it seems like wilderness, “the word [of God] is near you, on your lips and in your heart”.  God is with you in this place, and all will be well.

Epiphany 4, Year C, Sun Feb 3, 2013

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Cor 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.

Our Sr. Mary Michael, OSH was famous for her very short, pithy sermons, and I am tempted to do an MM-type sermon this morning.  These words of Jesus really say it all, and one could just say this and sit down.  But then even Jesus had to say more, to try to help the people understand.

The people of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth thought they knew Jesus through and through.  They had known him since he was born.  They had known his family for generations.  And, they knew what they expected of him.  In a small village, in a traditional culture, there were very precise expectations about what each person would do, what was appropriate for each person in their work and social status, and how they would live their lives. 

No matter how much Mary pondered in her heart, it would have been impossible for her to imagine anything except a traditional life for Jesus, her firstborn son.  He would follow in his father’s carpentry business, he would marry and have a family, and he would take care of her in his old age.

The miracles didn’t fit the pattern.  Moving to Capernaum didn’t fit the pattern.  Preaching all over the countryside didn’t fit the pattern. 

Then one day the country boy, who had left home and was making something of a name for himself, came back home for a visit.  So they invited Jesus to read scripture in the synagogue and to give them a commentary.  Someone handed him the scroll of Isaiah and Jesus read a short passage. 

So far so good.  And then he sat down to preach, and they were probably expecting the equivalent of a seminarian’s sermon: something safe, predictable, a laborious exegesis, perhaps including a bit of carry-over from his mentor John the Baptist.  They may have been expecting something banal if not boring, but they were prepared to be supportive of this hometown boy.

And then he preached the shortest sermon ever, and the most powerful: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

For generations the greatest prophesy of all time had been rolled up in an ancient scroll.  It had been a promise for so long that everyone expected that it would always remain safely inscribed in the text: a prophesy for the future.  On that day, Jesus really opened the scroll for the first time, and set the prophecy free.  He claimed this passage for his own, for the present time, for the fulfillment of all hope of salvation.

The moment was electric.  And they hadn’t a clue what it meant.  So Jesus couldn’t just leave it at that.

He said to them directly, “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown”.  He even seems to goad them to ask him to do the same miracles that he has done elsewhere.  But he will not do that.  He will not perform magic.  He will only perform miracles in certain situations, like Elijah and Elisha, who cured two outsiders: a poor widow and a foreigner. 

It is almost as if Jesus wanted them to drive him out. 

It may be that he was making absolutely sure that they did not continue to know him as the carpenter’s son.  It may be that this was a crucial stage in his own journey – to go home, and affirm that he had to violate the traditional expectations.  To go home, and then to be sure that he could never go home again. 

He had just overcome three temptations in the wilderness.  He had been tempted to change stones into bread, but he could take the hunger a little longer.  He had been tempted by Satan’s offer to rule the world – and ruling the world really is a bit overrated.
He had been tempted to jump off a pinnacle, to prove that God would save him – and somehow I don’t think that would be so very hard to pass by. 

But the fourth temptation was to go home, to succumb to social expectations and the status quo, to please Mom, to settle into what is, and to accept what has always been.

Instead, he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  After that, he could no longer be just the village carpenter, no longer the obedient son of Mary, no longer even a respected member of the village. 

They were angry that he declined to perform miracles for them, and but even angrier, I imagine, that he was breaking tradition.  What he was saying would change their relationship forever. 

After this, Jesus called God his “Abba”.  After this he took upon him self the mission of the Prophet Isaiah: to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed. 

Isaiah had proclaimed a “year of God’s favor,” a Jubilee year to be celebrated once in a lifetime, every 50 years.  Jesus proclaims that every year is a year of God’s favor, when all debts are forgiven, and all are reconciled, and all enslaved are set free.  (Isa 61:1-2a)

Human imagination has a tendency to settle into what is, rather than to believe in what could be.  If something remains a promise for the future long enough, it begins to seem always like a permanently future thing, and not something that will ever come to be.

Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  This is not just a promise for the future.  This is not just Holy Scripture to be read and then closed up and put on the shelf.  This is the living truth of the good news of Christ. 

Let us not settle into what is, into what we think our limitations are, into whom we think others are, into whom others think we are.  Let us believe in what could be fulfilled, here and now, in our lives and in our community.  Today and every day: this scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing: the pronouncement of freedom to love and to be as God imagined and formed us to be; the proclamation of the love of God, who knows us best and loves us most, now and forever.  

Epiphany 3, Year C, Sun Jan 27, 2013

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Cor 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14)

Can you imagine listening to someone read from a text for maybe five hours?  Yet the people of Israel, including young children, did just that, and what they heard amazed and astonished them.  The reading was from the newly rediscovered book of the Law of Moses, probably the first five books of the Bible. 

They were amazed because these books had been lost, and over time they had adopted different practices and understandings of their heritage.  They repented that they had fallen away from their ancient traditions, yet Ezra told them not to “be grieved” but rather to rejoice because this would be for all generations a holy day. 

The words of God’s favor and goodness were celebrated so profoundly, that even the heavens, and the days, and the nights seemed to give a message of joy.  “They have no words or language, and their voices are not heard,” and yet all creation was full of the glory, and mystery, and gracious love of God.

Stones also (usually) have no words or language, yet they may tell an eloquent, fascinating, intriguing story.  On my trip to Turkey, we looked at a lot of stones.  Most of my photos (all 800 or so of them) are of stones.  A few do have words and language: there were Greek and Hebrew inscriptions, and even more recent inscriptions in Ottoman Turkish.  Sometimes the stones were just lying where they had fallen; sometimes they were built into partial reconstructions of the ancient buildings.

I liked seeing the reconstructions, which gave a faint idea of what had once been.  But there was also a profound beauty in the random falling and tumbling of stones, by fire and earthquake and human destruction and even just over time.  They all had a story to tell – an important and vital story – if only we could hear and understand. 

We saw pagan temples, which seemed designed to impress and even to intimidate the visitor with the power and authority of the deity.  Usually the temples were surrounded by rows of very large pillars, and the statue of the god was placed in a smaller building at the center.  Sacrifices were offered on altars in front of the temple.  We also saw Jewish synagogues, some quite large and elaborate, and beautifully decorated with carvings and mosaics, coexisting with the pagan temples. 

Then we also saw the remains of churches.  One building, in Aphrodesias, had originally been a temple to Aphrodite, and had been converted into a church.  The archaeologists believe that the early Christians actually turned the temple inside out.  The pillars that used to surround the temple on all sides were inside the new church, and the walls of the church were built on the outside, making the church even larger than the pagan temple.

These sites leave us with many questions.  Did the people of Aphrodesias all convert to Christianity at one time?  Was it gradual or relatively sudden?  How did they decide on the new architecture?  What liturgy did they perform in this new, larger holy space?

Even more fascinating to me was a church and pagan temple combination which we saw in Sardis.  In addition to a large and beautiful Jewish synagogue, there is a temple to Artemis, quite large, with some pillars reconstructed.  As you approach the temple, even though there is little still standing, you can only see the temple.

At the far right hand corner, way in the back of the temple to Artemis, there are the remains of a little church.  It looks like a potting shed snuggled up next to the great temple.  The scholars think it was built in the later 4th century, after the temple was abandoned, and it was believed to have been used as a church through the 7th century.

The visitors’ sign next to the church observes its “unusual location and small size”, which reflect the transition from pagan cults to the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine in 313.  The Emperor Theodosius closed Roman temples in the 390s, and this church may have been built at that time.

The church is small indeed, its original dimensions approximately 23 feet long by 18.5 feet wide.  It still has a semi-circular apse with windows.  Walls were of brick, fieldstone and marble fragments, and originally were covered with painted plaster.  Another small room, of about equal size was later attached to one side, but today only the foundations of that room are evident.  At a later date, the apse was moved about 16.4 feet east of the original building.

We don’t know the name of this church.  We don’t know how many people worshipped there, and we don’t know what their liturgy was like.  Why did they chose to build a church so close to the temple?  Why so small?  How did they come to expand the building at a later date?  Who inscribed a rough little cross on one of the stones?

Stones by themselves have no words or language, yet they tell of the power of the word of God throughout the ages.  The builders and worshippers in “Church M”, as it is called by the archaeologists, were the Body of Christ in their time and place.  They prayed and worshipped in their own way, and because they were faithful, we have the tradition that they – and so many others – have handed down to us.

We don’t know exactly what their liturgy was like, but we do know that they read from the Holy Scriptures, recalling the whole story of salvation and the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ.  We can be sure that they prayed and confessed their sins, taught and baptized, and sang hymns, and received the Body and Blood of the Eucharist – and were renewed in their commitment to Christ. 

They may have struggled with their faith, as we do.  They may have had disagreements with one another, as we all do.  They may have wondered and questioned and hoped, as we also do.  They were probably few in number, and yet the words of scripture and the promise of salvation were fulfilled in their hearing. 

In our own little church here in Beech Island, we might say that we are descendants of “Church M of Sardis”.  For us, as for them, the proclamation of Christ is also fulfilled each day, in the promise that God is present, God is forgiveness, God is salvation, God is love in Christ, now and throughout all ages.