The Second Sunday of Advent by Liz Klein

Baruch 5:1-9

Philippians 1:3-11

Luke 3:1-6

Canticle 4 or 16


Advent 2 Luke 3:1-6 How do we prepare a way for the Lord? By The Rev. Liz Klein

Good morning and a warm welcome to each one of you online and here in the sacristy this morning. Thank you for welcoming me as your new deacon. I want us to begin with a big cleansing breath. Take a big breath in. Let the spirit run through you. Let it out. Take another breath in and breath out all that worries you. We are so blessed to have this sacred time to dwell in God’s word, the Good News. I pray that we would allow this Good News to dwell in our hearts and minds so we can hear the words of John the Baptist, and prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of Jesus.

We hear this familiar Gospel from Luke. John went into the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Zechariah’s son was shaking things up in Judea. John’s unusual style drew crowds out to the wilderness east of the Jordan, where he was “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Luke 3:3) I have a lot of questions after hearing this Gospel and maybe you do too.

John the Baptist was unorthodox in his preaching, his manner, his clothing, and lifestyle. People small and great wondered about him. John’s preaching reminded the people that the Messiah was coming. The ordinary folk considered John a prophet sent by God, but the Jewish leadership had questions and concerns. I wonder if this is one of the reasons that so many leaders are mentioned at the beginning of the Gospel reading today.

I wonder why John preached in the wilderness, why not Jerusalem? The wilderness is largely unpopulated—People had to travel to hear him. Throughout Israel’s history, the wilderness has been a place where God has shaped his people. It is the place where the nation Israel was forged. Prophets did much of their work in the wilderness. Jesus was also tested in the wilderness. God works in the wilderness of our lives today. I know that I am more open to hearing God’s word when life seems most barren. How about you? Parts of the Pandemic have been lonely and barren and have seemed like the wilderness for many.

John speaks of the need for baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. I wondered if this idea of baptism was a totally new concept to the people at the time of John. I learned that the people listening to John were probably already familiar with two kinds of baptism: the baptism by which Gentile converts became Jews and then began a whole new way of life; and the ritual washings that the Qumran community understood as cleansing them, but only if they turned from their sins and obeyed God. Both types called for changed behavior. John’s baptism of repentance does too. Repentance (Greek metanoia) is not mere regret for past misdeeds. It means far more than saying, “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” Metanoia means a change of mind and heart, the kind of inner transformation that bears visible fruit. It means turning around and going in a new direction. I experienced this most recently with my hard work understanding racism and the part that I had played knowingly and unknowingly.

John proclaims a baptism of repentance that leads to release from sins. The release or forgiveness that follows repentance does not undo past sins, but it does unbind us from them. Before a king made a journey to a distant country, the roads he would travel were improved, made straight, leveled and smoothed. John is calling for a preparation for the Messiah, which focused on repentance and forgiveness of sin and the need for a savior. John calls us to repent as the way of preparing our hearts for the Lord’s visit.

How do we prepare and make ready a way of the Lord? Advent is a time of preparation for the Lord. The lighting of the 2nd candle on the Advent wreath this week reminds us to prepare. When John calls Israel (and us) to make the Lord’s paths straight, he is telling us to remove any obstacles that stand in the way of us honoring and loving God. What kind of obstacles might those be? The misuse of sex, money, alcohol and drugs. What about our quest for power, excessive anxiety, greed etc. What are the mountains that need to be made low? What are the valleys that need to be filled and the roads made straight? Preparing the Lord’s path toward peace requires overturning the world as we know it. John quotes the prophet Isaiah to describe the earthshaking transformation that must take place. There are so many mountains and hills and valleys in our lives. What are the obstacles, the mountains and valleys that prevent us from living the life God wants us to live?

Let me give you an example from the last week. I was walking up in the Mount Hood National Forest last weekend. It was beautiful, green and peaceful. I had to walk along the road for a short distance. I noticed that some car drivers waved and gave me plenty of space and others did not create any space for me to walk in, practically pushing me off the road. Initially, I was quite irritated. Because I do the Daily Examen, I am more easily able to gently evaluate my feelings, thoughts and actions. I began to wonder why some people gave me space and others did not. I wonder if some people have never walked on a road with cars before and do not realize the danger. I also realized that I did not want to be irritable as I was enjoying the beauty of the mountains with amazing trees, beautiful, lush green moss and birds singing. So, I prayed for those who gave me space and those that did not. It sounds so simple, but it changed my attitude, my hike and my day. It was a way for me to be more loving and kind as I believe God wants me to be, and more open to the holy happening all around me.

As I continued walking along the Salmon River, I noticed a new sign about fly fishing. It said, “Catch and Release Fishing only. No bait allowed. Only wild fish are present. Please treat them kindly.” I was really struck by this sign. Yes, let us treat the fish kindly and everyone and everything kindly. Alone, I might not be so kind. It is because of the love of God and God’s good news of Jesus that I can be kind, that the brokenness of the world can be healed and that I can pray for drivers that almost run me off the road. It is because of the love of God that we each can be healed and live more fully the life that we are intended to live, repent, turn around, be kind and love others. John proclaims the good news of Jesus, God’s promise, and our hope.

Preparing for God’s arrival means rethinking systems and structures that we see as normal, but that God condemns as oppressive and crooked. It means letting God humble everything that is proud and self-satisfied in us, and letting God heal and lift up what is broken and beaten down. John calls us to let God reshape the world’s social systems and the landscape of our own minds and hearts. People of Grace, you are preparing for God’s arrival by caring for and lifting up the unhoused, the poor and the hungry on our streets. You inspire me. I think the real goal of the church is to prepare our hearts to receive the Lord. This is the work of the Spirit. We contribute to the Spirit’s work in many ways—especially by prayer and by preparing our hearts to receive the Lord. It means being Jesus’ hands and feet in the world and feeding those who are hungry, advocating for laws to protect our environment, and helping those who are unhoused.

As you light the 2nd candle on the Advent wreath this week, Let us get on with preparing the way for Jesus in our hearts, our minds and in our world. Prepare ye the way of the Lord.

I will conclude with a question for us to ponder this next week. What do we need to lift up or bring down or change in ourselves to be more prepared for the coming of the Lord?

The First Sunday of Advent by Martin Elfert

Jeremiah 33:14-16

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-36

Psalm 25:1-9

Today is the day when we name, in worship, that we are the stewards of this place that we call Grace Memorial. In particular, this is the day when you and I are invited bring forward to the altar an outward visible sign of our financial stewardship of this parish in the form of a pledge card. Those of us who are worshiping here on the ground are invited to do so literally and physically. And those of us who are worshiping online are invited to do figuratively and spiritually.

On a day like this, it is often customary to talk about the many good things that you support via your financial pledge. And I can’t resist doing a little bit of that because there is an impressive list of things your gift has made possible and continues to make possible.

Thanks to your generosity, there is a thriving community here at 17th and Weidler, a group of practitioners, some of whom are members of this church and some of whom are not, all of whom are nurturing healing, belonging, meaning, love, and justice.

This community exists because of you.

You have made it possible for us to defer rent for our partners at PHAME, forgive rent for our sister organisation, Grace Institute, thus keeping our Art Camp vital. You have made it possible for us to host the Free Lunch Collective, a team of volunteers who bring food, toiletries, and other necessities to our neighbours who live on our streets – if Jesus is telling the truth when he says, I was hungry and you fed me, then their work is a huge expression of the Gospel. You have made it possible for us to never lay off any staff across pandemic – that’s something of which I am particularly proud. You have made it possible for us to create new ministries, such as the Little Free Pantry.

We could keep going. Each of these things, all of these things, invite God’s Kingdom nearer.

But I’d like to spend most of our time this morning not on what your gift and mine makes possible within this parish but, rather, what maybe your gift and mine makes possible within our hearts.

Today in Paul’s letter to the young church in Thessaloniki Paul talks about joy and about abounding love. In particular, we hear Paul say, and I am paraphrasing a wee bit,

How can I thank God enough for all of the joy I feel because of you?

Paul’s letter reminds me of another letter, written many years later. This is a letter by Thomas More written in the year 1522. And it is written because More’s young adult daughter, Margaret is away studying and she had done what generations of college students before and since have done, which is to say that she has written home to ask for money.

Here is what More says in response (as with Paul, I’m paraphrasing):

You ask for money my dear Margaret with too much bashfulness and timidity, since you are asking from a father who is eager to give…

Go spend the money well. And then ask me for more.

So that I may have the joy of giving it to you.

The great Canadian-Irish preacher, Herb O’Driscoll, says More’s letter totally changed how he understood financial stewardship. What Herb realised is that there are two ways that money leaves our possession. We can transfer money to someone else because we have to, because we are a debtor. Or we can do so because we want to, because we are a lover.

Most of the time, when we dig out our credit card or our cheque book or open up Venmo on our phones, we are doing so because we are debtors. And to be clear, there is nothing inherently nefarious about this. I’d like a cup of coffee, Peet’s makes me one, and therefore I become a debtor to Peet’s for three dollars (or more if it’s a fancy cup of coffee). I’d like my house to be warm and therefore I become a debtor to the utility company. I’d like to attend a concert and therefore I become a debtor to Beyoncé.

And I settle my debt by handing over money.

A lot of time we enjoy the things we have purchased or we need the things we have purchased. But we rarely enjoy paying for them. Handing over money as a debtor is, at best, a neutral experience, sometimes it is an experience of regret – we have this expression called buyer’s remorse: I wish I hadn’t paid for that.

Hanging over money because we want to, handing over money as a lover, is an entirely different matter.

Suddenly, there is no transaction. We are not receiving goods, we are not receiving services. We are giving a gift. And in the giving there is joy. Joy in knowing that we are helping a person whom we love to thrive, joy in knowing that we are helping a place we love to thrive.

I reckon that this joy is what Louise Tippens was getting at when she led the Grace fundraising team in an exercise a couple of weeks ago. The fundraising team is a small group of folks led by Nancy Entrikin. Our primary task these days is raising funds for the capital campaign. I suspect that we may eventually tackle things such as planned giving.

And that evening a few weeks back, Louise asked us a pair of interrelated questions about capital campaigns such as ours. The first was:

How do you feel when you ask someone for money?

And we answered, many of us, by saying that we felt embarrassed or awkward, like we were imposing, like maybe we were dodgy salespeople trying to sell dodgy products.

But then Louise asked:

How do you feel when someone asks you for money?

And suddenly we said we felt excited or pleased or flattered, that we were being invited be part of something wonderful. In short, joy.

Maybe what we uncovered that night, with Louise’s help, is that a lot of us were feeling nervous about asking for money because we had made a category error. We thought that we were asking people to be debtors when, actually, we were asking them to be lovers.

I’ve shared with you before the tithe, that giving 10% of my salary to the Body of Christ as it is made manifest here at Grace, has become one of my most cherished practices. There are a bunch of reasons for that. But one of them, one of the biggest, is that this Biblical way of supporting our parish is a disciplined and structured way for my family and me to practice being a lover of this place. And I don’t get goods or services in return. I get the joy of knowing that I am helping Grace thrive.

And how can I thank God enough for all of the joy I feel because of this place, all of the joy I feel because of you?

It is such a privilege to join with you in being Grace’s Memorial’s stewards, in being Grace Memorial’s lovers.

The Twenty-Sixth Sunday After Pentecost by Martin Elfert

Daniel 7:9-10,

13-14 Psalm 93

Revelation 1:4b-8

John 18:33-37

Through much of high school I imagined that I was going to be an actor or, possibly, a director or playwright. I was in a bunch of shows, I directed my classmates in several shows, and I actually wrote several shows. (I haven’t seen the scripts that I wrote in years and I would be tantalised and afraid to return to them now – I am not sure what I would discover within their pages.)

One of the acting exercises that I remember most vividly from those days involved taking a script and seeing how many ways you could say a given line or even just a given word. Let’s imagine an actor comes on stage and the script calls for them to say the standard-issue greeting Hello.

How many ways could they say that word?

Hello

Hello

Hello

This sort of exercise is particularly fun and particularly challenging with an old-school playwright such as Shakespeare. Contemporary playwrights will often give you some clue as to how they imagine an actor saying a given line – the stage directions, in italics and square brackets, will tell you that certain words are whispered or yelled or spoken through tears. Shakespeare doesn’t do that. And so we have centuries of different interpretations of:

To be or not to be,

that is the question.

So. I love the lectionary, the schedule of readings that we follow across the year. It takes us to places that I probably wouldn’t go on my own. Divorced from the discipline

that it gives us to visit the Bible in almost its entirety, I would probably just choose to preach on my favourite verses over and over again.

But there are times when the lectionary drives me a little nuts. And this is one of those weeks. We are in John and we hear the famous encounter between Pilate and Jesus – the encounter that begins with Pilate interviewing or examining Jesus and ends with Jesus interviewing or examining Pilate. It’s an amazing scene. But today, the lectionary cuts off the last line of the scene.

Jesus says:

Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

And that is where the lectionary told Liz to stop reading. But in John, Pilate says something after that. Does anyone remember what it is?

Pilate says:

What is truth?

I’d like us to remember that acting exercise from my high school days and see how we might read Pilate’s words. They are tricky because scripture, like Shakespeare some 1500 or 1600 years later, doesn’t have stage directions. John doesn’t tell us that Pilate speaks angrily or sadly or quietly or anything.

And these words are tricky because John does something extraordinary, which is that as soon as Pilate asks the question What is truth, the fourth Gospel immediately cuts to another scene. John 18:38 goes like this:

Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

After Pilate had said this, he went out to [Jesus’ accusers] again and told them, “I find no case against him.”

Jesus’ reply is totally missing. We don’t have that response to help guide our interpretation of Pilate’s question. Does Jesus respond with anger, with an enigmatic saying, with a parable, or, as he so often does, with a question of his own? Is John implying that Jesus responds with silence? Or does Pilate ask his question and then just run away?

Regardless, it is a brilliant decision for the Fourth Gospel to end this scene with Pilate’s question rather than Jesus’ answer.

And that means it’s up to us to decide how Pilate asks this question.

Here are three possibilities.

One. Pilate full of haughtiness and sarcasm.

Pilate: So you are a king?

Jesus: You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

Pilate: What is truth?

Maybe this is the Pilate whom we picture most easily. A monarch who is accustomed to people kissing his ring, a nihilist, someone who reckons that his pleasure and his power are the beginning and the end of what matters. And who finds anyone who thinks differently misguided and pitiful.

And maybe that is right. But I am always suspicious of reading a person – in my immediate life or in the news or in scripture – in such a way that there are less than fully human. And villains, people who are capital E evil? They may be fun in movies, but they probably aren’t fully human. Most people, it seems to me, when they do immoral or evil things (when we do immoral or evil things?) are telling a story about how their actions are good, necessary, and justified.

So let’s try again.

Two. Pilate stuck deep in the mud of bureaucracy.

Pilate: One more question – Mr. Christ, is it? One more question: You’re a king?

Jesus: You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

Pilate: Uh huh. And what is truth?

This one feels maybe a little more real to me. It’s Hannah Arendt who writes the famous book about the Holocaust perpetrator, Adolph Eichmann. To no small controversy, Arendt subtitled her book The Banality of Evil. Eichmann was one of the chief administrators of the Holocaust: he was a mass murderer who never killed anyone with his own hands. And Arendt’s thesis is that, among other things, Eichmann and his colleagues were able to carry out this monstrous act of evil by employing euphemism and by disguising it as an unremarkable act of accounting, as just doing their everyday jobs.

I can imagine Pilate as this kind of bureaucrat. A man aware, at some level, that he was engaging in terrible evil, but disguising the evil to himself by dressing it up as his plain-old duty.

One more try.

Three. Pilate as asking as sincerely seeking something.

Pilate: One more question – Mr. Christ, is it? One more question: You’re a king?

Jesus: You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

Pilate: What is truth?

This is the one that I want to be true. Pilate is carrying out the everydayness of empire, engaging, as in our second reading, in banal evil. But then Jesus says something or does something or is just there in his presence, the Son of God. And Pilate is shocked out of his routine. And in naked sincerity he asks:

What is truth?

Maybe the guards who are in the room with them at this moment perk up. So accustomed are they to bureaucratic cruelty, to suffering imposed by an indifferent judge, that they don’t know what to do with the abrupt emotion, the deep longing in Pilate’s voice.

If this reading is right, then this is maybe the most beautiful and real moment in Pilate’s life. And it is followed by his most pathetic. Because Jesus is offering Pilate transformation. And Pilate wants it so bad. But he doesn’t want it as bad as he wants his next promotion. He wants stuff and status just a bit more than he wants God.

And so Pilate, who totally has the power to just say, Jesus is innocent – I’m letting him go, instead tries for this half-hearted middle ground. He says to Jesus’ accusers, I don’t think he did anything. We should probably let him go. But when they insist, what does he do?

He washes his hands and he utters the most cowardly words of his life. He says:

You are the ones who are doing this.

Which reading is right? Is there still another that we have not considered? Is Pilate a villain, a perpetually distracted bureaucrat of evil, or – as is my hunch – someone who

can’t quite bring himself to choose love and to choose God? And depending on which way reading we choose, what does his story have to teach you and me?

Pilate did not expect the Son of God to turn up in his life that day. And maybe many of us have that in common with him – we don’t expect Jesus. Maybe that is why scripture tells us so often to stay awake, to be ready, to notice that Jesus is here the whole time, most often in the person of the least of these, our siblings.

So be ready. Be ready so that when Jesus speaks to everyone who belongs to the truth, you will be listening.

The Twenty-Fifth Sunday After Pentecost by Matthew David Morris

Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

We want to know how things end. How pandemics end. How interpersonal conflicts end. How the world––whatever world we currently occupy––ends.

There has always been a desire to know the ending.

I’ve had a lot of cause to think about endings this year. In January, me and my husband of 12 years (15 together), decided, for a variety of good reasons, it was time for us to finish our marriage. We didn’t decide it was time to “get a divorce” or to “break up.” We decided it was time to finish what we had begun back in 2008. 

We started the marriage in love and we were determine to end the marriage in love. 

We would love and care for one another throughout the process as best we could, helping the other to transition into life as a single person: moving each other into new apartments, talking with each other about new experiences and changes and challenges. 

We loved our way through the end of a marriage into something else.

The ending was not an end, full stop. It was a transition; a process. And the process has its own birth pangs. It has been, to borrow the common title of today’s Gospel passage from Mark, a “Little Apocalypse.”

The term apocalypse gets a bad rap. The foreshadowing Jesus offers his disciples about the apocalyptic ending coming their way serves as a blueprint for how most of us understand apocalypse. War, famine, destruction, the desecration of all-things sacred; phenomena not limited to first century Palestine. There has never not been a time when human beings did not harm each other with our violence, neglect, and hatred.

But the uncritical trends of biblical literalism and End Times prophecy have contaminated the Church, making it hard to hear these words and not want to read the news for clues about when exactly the end is coming. We want to know how things end.

But our obsession with knowing the ending can interfere with our ability to learn what the ending might mean. The meaning is what matters, not the timing, and the meaning of the word apocalypse is missed when we get tripped up on the dramatic imagery of a violent end.

An apocalypse is a revealing. That’s more what the Greek is getting at. It’s a pulling back of  theheavenly veil to show the truth of some earthly thing. An apocalypse is a reckoning; a crisis of meaning that requires us to reevaluate everything.

An apocalypse is like that moment in the hospital waiting room, after the fatal news was delivered by the doctor, when you realize that everything you knew no longer applies, because everything has changed and will never be the same. 

The apocalypse is not the death of the person; the apocalypse is the death of the paradigm you once knew to be your life.

Jesus––the truth of Jesus, the challenge of Jesus, the disorientation of Jesus––is the lens through which we are called to see the little and big apocalipses of our lives.

The temples fall, the church buildings are mostly empty, but Jesus is focussed on the well-being of his disciples.

Do not be alarmed, he says. This mess was expected, and though it’s an end, it’s not The End. Marriages end, plans change, and death happens. But beware that you are not led astray by anything that pretends to be love, but that is actually something different.

The endings of our imagination are often more cataclysmic than the endings that show up in our actual lives. I mean, unless they’re not. But regardless of whether it is the temple we have built of stone or the temple we have built of story, when it falls, we will feel scared and maybe even hopeless. We may wonder where God is.

And God is there, sitting with us on the mountain side, looking down at Jerusalem, whatever place we have made that we consider sacred and too precious to change.

And God will say, Do not be alarmed when the world you thought you knew ends. Do not be led into something new by anything other than the love I have for you and the love that I am calling you to share with the world. 

Do not let your heart be broken by the violence of your own wounded imagination.

For you are beloved. You are loved. And you are mine, God says.

This is the covenant that I make with you after this ends, says the Lord: 

I will put my law of love

in your hearts, 

and I will write it on your minds,

and you will find a way

to love yourselves

and love each other

through the pain of every

new ending.

Because that is what God is doing, every day in every one of us: loving us through the end.

into something new.

In the name of the one whose own ending is the ultimate beginning, our brother and liberator, Jesus.

Amen.

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Isaiah 53:4-12

Psalm 91:9-16

Hebrews 5:1-10

Mark 10:35-45

Here we are.

Here we are, together. Just like we planned.

We last worshipped in this space, together, what was it? Two weeks ago, three weeks
ago? And now everything is back to normal.

Right?

Well, that was how it was supposed to go. I remember us saying to one another, We’ll
be back by Easter.
(This was Easter of 2020, by the way, not Easter of 2021.) And then
We’ll be back by Pentecost. And then We’ll be back by next year.

Somewhere in that time that video got circulated by everyone in the Episcopal church.
Did it make it to you? It is an Episcopal priest, fully vested up, and singing new lyrics to
King George’s song from Hamilton the musical. In this new version, our priest sang:

You’ll be back,

Wait and see,

Just remember how it used to be.

And it ends with him removing the ropes that were used to enforce physical distancing
between the pews and in his church and throwing the front door open.

You’ll be back

Like before.

Triumph.

This was the promise. It was the promise made by no less than the President: Normal
by the Fourth of July.
And it was the promise that a lot of us made to ourselves. It’s all
going to get back to normal.
Pandemic started like a curtain coming down on to end an
opera. And it seemed fair that pandemic would end with that same curtain being
cranked back up, fast.

We’d all come out and take bows.

But instead, we’ve got a curtain that’s gone up partway and then sort of gotten stuck.
It’s bobbing there, maybe a third of a way off the stage.

And that feels like a rip off. And an exhausting rip off at that. If there is a theme in the
conversations that I have with folks these days it is that everyone, everyone is just so
tired. And that makes sense. Our adrenal glands are not built to endure a crisis that
goes on for nineteen months and counting. If your house catches on fire, one of two
things happen: the fire department comes and puts it out; or your house burns down.
There is no scenario in which your house is still on fire nineteen months later.

And yet ours just keeps on burning.

And so, here we are, back. Not at all like it was before. We’re tired and there are bits of
tape telling you which pew you can sit in and some of us have discerned that it is best
to worship here in the building and some of us have discerned that it is best to
continue to worship online and months ago we gave announcing when all of this would
be over.

This is a day of happiness. We are back in a space that we love. But it is a complicated
happiness. A happiness with an asterisk after it, like the baseball player who hit all
those home runs after his shoe size, enigmatically, grew a size and a half at age thirty-eight.

Scripture talks with sometimes startling candour about suffering – see today’s reading
from Isaiah. And Jesus in particular talks about suffering – his own suffering and our
suffering – with startling candour. He says that he will be, must be, crucified. He talks
about it so often that his best friend, Peter, rebukes him. And can you blame Peter? If
my best friend regularly talked about how they were destined to be brutally murdered
by a death squad, I’d tell them to stop it too.

And today Jesus talks about the suffering that John and James, the sons of Zebedee, will
endure. John and James are trying to get this position of status with Jesus, they are
trying to cement their position in the Kingdom’s corporate ladder. But they are doing
so with such earnestness that it’s hard to hate them as they do so.

And Jesus says to them that they are going to drink from the cup that he is going to
drink from. This is the very cup that, in Gethsemane, he pleads with the Father that it
might be taken from him. In other words, Jesus is saying the same thing to John and
James as when he tells the disciples and you and me that, if they are to follow him, we
must take up our cross.

Jesus doesn’t warn us that following him might involve suffering. He guarantees it.

But. But this guarantee about his own suffering – about his disciples’ suffering – never
stops Jesus from living his life or his disciples from living their lives.

Jesus’ first miracle is at a wedding, a celebration, a party. The story that we call the
Feeding of the 5000 – this story of radical, celebratory abundance – is one of the few
stories told in all four Gospels. (In two of the Gospels it is told twice!) And in one of my
favourite lines anywhere in the Gospels, Jesus says of himself:

The Son of Man comes eating and drinking.

Jesus delights in food and wine. Jesus delights in parties. And he does these things even
as he names that he does and that he will suffer.

Amy Starr Thomas and I were talking earlier this week. And we spoke of the tendency,
the temptation, to wait until pandemic is over so that we can really start living our
lives. But, of course, there is always some new reason to defer the start of your life. My
real life is going to start when I finish school or when I move out or when my kids move
or when I get my dream job or when I find the person who will finally love me.

The real start of your life is infinitely deferrable.

And maybe that is the lesson for us right now. Jesus says, yes there is suffering. Yes,
there will be more suffering. Yes, the curtain somehow got caught a third of the way up.
But you know what? A curtain a third of the way up is still high enough to put on a play.
We can still live, we can still love, we can still serve the Lord, at full speed.

We are back. And it is not like it was before.

As Tennyson wrote, all those years ago:

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are

Here we are. In spite of everything, there is joy, there is thanksgiving. In spite of
everything the Deacon will invite us:

Let us go forth to love and serve the Lord. Alleluia, Alleluia.

And we will reply:


Thanks be to God. Alleluia, Alleluia.

Fourth Sunday in Lent by the Rev. Richard Schaper

Lessons:

The Reverend Richard Schaper studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.

He also studied philosophy and religion at Colgate University, theology at the University of Chicago, ethics at Yale University, financial planning at Golden Gate University and the management of nonprofit organizations at the University of San Francisco.

Growing up Lutheran, then worshipping with Quakers and zazen training with Zenki Shibayama Roshi prepared him for nine years as a Benedictine monk at Weston Priory.

Richard’s experiences as a monk, hospital chaplain, parish pastor, and certified financial planner have prepared him for a pastoral and spiritual perspective in financial and estate planning.

His wife, the Reverend Anita Ostrom, PhD., is a psychotherapist.

Richard comes from a seafaring family and enjoys fishing and sailing.

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28
Psalm 111

What do you expect it to be like when you meet Jesus?

And then: what is it like when you actually meet Jesus?

We are early on the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the shortest Gospel, it is probably the oldest, and it is the one that tells the story of Jesus with the most urgency. It has this driving, and then, and then, and then quality to it. Mark does not give us a nativity, he does not give us a genealogy, he does not give us the cosmic preamble that we have in John.

What Mark gives us is John the Baptist foretelling Jesus and then baptising Jesus; Jesus being driven by the Spirit into the wilderness; Jesus calling Simon and Andrew and James and John; and then the scene that we witness today. (We’re still in the first Chapter!) This is a scene that offers a possible answer to our opening questions: What do we expect it to be like when we meet Jesus? And what is it like when we actually meet Jesus?

Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. If we feel like imagining this scene in the present day, maybe we can picture him standing at the front of our church. He is teaching. And people are amazed – because, the text says, he has authority. There is something about his words, his stories, just who he is, that tells people that he is telling the truth.

And no sooner has Mark set up this scene than conflict or crisis shoots into the middle of it like a lightning bolt. Someone with an unclean spirit shows up. Unclean spirit is a category that we don’t know much about in 2021. It assumes a fundamentally different worldview than I have and, I’m guessing, than you have. If you haven’t seen the person who lives next to you for a while and you ask another neighbour what happened to them, you’d probably be surprised and confused if your neighbour said, “Oh, Doug has an unclean spirit.”

Even if we don’t have a common vocabulary, however, we do know what it is like when someone is in distress. And this man person shows up all of a sudden in this scene is in profound distress. They are hurting in a big way.

Something fascinating happens then, something that will repeat throughout Jesus’ ministry: the hurting person or, to use the language of Mark, the unclean spirit within the hurting person recognises Jesus right away. Sometimes the disciples are slow to figure out who Jesus is and what he must do. And someone like Pilate never figures out who Jesus is. But this unclean person, this hurting person has no question:

I know who you are,

he says,

You are the Holy One of God.

And maybe this makes sense. Because it is often in our distress, in our pain, in our loneliness, in our lostness that God shows up to us most clearly. When I speak with people in hospital or hospice beds, they will regularly tell me that their prayer life, that their conversation with God, has a clarity that it never had before. I don’t think that’s because God is any more present when we are suffering than when we are washing the dishes or when we are in a moment of jubilation. But I do suspect that, in our suffering, it’s sometimes easier for us to notice God.

Now, pay attention to what else this hurting person says next:

Have you come to destroy us?

While being possessed by an unclean spirit may be outside of our experience, I want to suggest that this next part is not, that these words are not. Many of us have inherited this idea that, when we stand before God, what we will encounter from God is disappointment, condemnation, rejection, and the harshest kind of judgment. Many of us suspect that when we arrive at the gates of heaven, Saint Peter won’t have a room ready for us. We wonder, we fear, in other words, that what we can expect from God is violence.

We ask Jesus:

Have you come to destroy us?

But what Jesus offers is healing.

Come out of him! Jesus says to the unclean spirit. And the man is healed, he is set free. And maybe – I don’t know if this is a weird idea – the unclean spirit is also healed and set free. The two are no longer bound together in pain.

Alleluia.

If your answer to the question, What do you expect it to be like when you meet Jesus? Is I expect pain and rejection and violence then this story is for you.

There is an old and beloved hymn called There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy. The words were written by a guy by the name of Frederick Faber. And one of the verses goes like this:

There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgment given.

That hymn is about the whole earth. And it is about you in particular. We all fail. I sure do. And what we can expect from Jesus, what Jesus promises, is kindly judgment. Again, Alleluia.

What do you expect it to be like when you meet Jesus?

And then: what is it like when you actually meet Jesus?

Whatever you may expect from Jesus, know that meeting him is always, always a joy that is more than we can ask or imagine. Know that when you meet him you will find kindly judgment, you will find freedom, you will find love.