Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Corbet Clark

Lessons

Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Psalm 22:1-15
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31


If someone asked you, “What is God like,” how would you respond? I think we all have a
sense of how we might describe God, based on our own ideas and experience, but perhaps
the most honest answer might be, “I don’t know.”

I think we understand that knowing the essence of God is not possible. God is too
“other,” too distant, too intangible for us to grasp directly, and the scriptures acknowledge
that challenge when describing encounters with God.

Nevertheless, we believe there are some ways we can know God. We have the record of
God’s actions in the world and interactions with humans over thousands of years. We have
the words of angels and prophets – those who communicate with us in God’s name. We
have the words of Jesus, who also presents us a human image of the divine character. And
we believe that God has given us the gift, through prayer, to communicate directly with God,
as difficult and sometimes confusing as this may be.

Since it’s impossible for us to know God “face to face,” we use analogies and images to
understand the divine nature. The risk in doing this is that we create images in our minds
that make God seem like what we would like God to be, not necessarily what God really is.
It’s easy for us to imagine a comfortable and reasonable God, not too scary or demanding.
But the record of scripture tells us that God can be terrifying, threatening, confusing,
seemingly irrational.

One of my favorite images of God in literature is the character of Aslan, from C. S.
Lewis’s novels, The Narnia Chronicles. Aslan is a great lion, representing the divine in the
stories. On the one hand, he is a comforting and reassuring figure for the children who are
the heroes of the story. You might say he’s like a big pussycat. But Aslan can also be
terrifying and demanding, powerful and threatening. And he’s quite unpredictable.
Definitely not a pussycat.

We have two examples from the scripture readings this morning of people who think
they know what God is like but really don’t. The first is Job. Job is someone who is a
righteous and God-fearing man, who thinks that because of that he deserves the prosperity
and blessings of family and friends that he enjoys. Then he has all of that taken away, and he
cries foul on God. In an extended argument with God, Job claims that God has been unjust in
taking away the blessings he has had.

God’s response is an angry one. Job knows nothing about what God is like. Who is Job to
challenge the creator of all things, when Job is a mere creature? Job can make no claim on
God, who is free to do what God likes. It goes on and on like that, as Job persists in asserting
his complaint.

The second example is the gospel story of the rich young man. When he comes to Jesus,
Jesus perceives that the man thinks of God as basically a rule maker. If you follow the rules
spelled out, then you get to enter God’s kingdom. Jesus’ response is essentially to say that
God doesn’t just want the man to follow certain rules, God wants EVERYTHING from him.
The man doesn’t argue but just goes away quietly, unwilling to make that commitment.

This story is one of those considered “difficult” in the Gospels. When Jesus tells his
followers it will be more difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God than for a
camel to pass through the eye of a needle, it shocks people. Can he really have meant that?
The tendency to want to water down these “hard” sayings of Jesus is illustrated by several
historical attempts to tone down his message. One interpretation says that there was a
small gate in the Jerusalem wall called “The Eye of the Needle,” that a camel could get
through if it got down on its knees and its load were taken off. There’s no evidence of such a
gate. Another interpretation argues that the saying was probably a textual error. The word
in Greek for “camel” is similar to the one for “rope,” so Jesus was really talking about a rope
going through the eye of a needle – a somewhat less challenging image than the original.

So the risk is when we’re confronted by a God who makes extreme demands or who
seems frightening or confusing that we try to make God seem more comfortable, perhaps
more like us. And in doing so, we may miss the real God.

Perhaps the better approach is to identify for ourselves those things about God that
seem “too much.” Perhaps it’s Jesus’ statements about wealth that we find alarming. Or
perhaps Jesus’ demands that we forgive those who have done us harm. Or the idea of table
fellowship with social outcasts, who in our own day might include drug addicts or the
homeless or those with severe emotional disorders. Instead of trying to interpret these
demands in ways that make us feel better, perhaps it would be better to confront them
directly and examine why and how they seem too difficult and unsettling.

Finally, I want to return to the figure of Job. The surprising end to the Book of Job is that
God says essentially, “You’re right – I have treated you unjustly,” and he restores to Job
everything that was taken away. It’s not a unique story in the scripture: both Abraham and
Moses, for example, are able to win arguments with God and have God change God’s mind.
It’s an affirmation of the closeness of the relationship between God and humans, as well as
of human persistence. We may find God frightening and demanding and confusing, and yet
through our ongoing discourse with God in tough situations we may come to a deeper
understanding of what God is like and what God wants.
Amen.

Palm Sunday and Sunday of the Passion by The Rev. Corbet Clark

Lessons:

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

 

The gospels don’t make clear what Jesus thought he was doing when he went up to Jerusalem in the last week of his earthly life. John’s Gospel suggests that Jesus had a master plan from God and knew exactly what was going to happen, but the other gospels are more ambiguous.  Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey, which seems to signify peaceful intentions. Does he think, as many of his followers apparently did, that God would use this moment to sweep away the current power structure and bring in God’s kingdom? When Jesus makes his prophetic assault on the temple, does he anticipate that it will inspire the ruling elite to plot his death? It’s hard to know.

If we step back a moment and contemplate what actually happens in the days leading to Jesus’ crucifixion, it looks a lot like utter chaos. Picture the scene: Jerusalem is packed with the faithful come to celebrate Passover, Pilate and the Romans are nervous about popular unrest, and Jewish leaders are nervous about the Romans’ tendency to use violence to solve problems.

Enter Jesus: he’s initially hailed by many as a powerful prophet but within days is scorned as a pathetic fraud by the Passover crowd. He hides outside of town to avoid the authorities, only to be betrayed by one of his closest lieutenants. Jewish leaders scramble to find a way to get rid of this troublemaker in order to protect the city. Pilate is uncertain who this man is, initially quarrels with Jewish leaders about what to do, but finally gives in to their demands just to be on the safe side. Jesus’s followers, confused and fearful, don’t understand why things are unfolding as they are.

Experts on the human mind tell us – as if we really needed to be told – that we humans, for all our intelligence and rational capacity, are really terrible at predicting the future, of seeing what’s going to happen, even though we often think we’re good at it.

Think back to this time a year ago: I thought, well, there’s a new virus, it’s problematic, we’ll shut things down for a few weeks, maybe a month or so, then things will get better.

Did any of you anticipate – I certainly did not – that in a year’s time a half million of our fellow Americans would have died of the virus, that tens of millions of people would have lost their jobs and businesses, that schools would be mostly shut down for a year, that wearing or not wearing face masks would become a political issue, that we would now be busily trying to vaccinate the entire population against the new virus, or that thousands of Americans would have physically stormed the U.S. Capitol trying to overturn a national election? It’s almost like a script for a science fiction movie. And yet, here we are.

Paul, in the Letter to the Philippians, writes that Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, … emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (2:5-7) In other words, he wasn’t like one of the Greek gods with supernatural powers who could appear in human form; he was truly and completely human, subject to all of the weaknesses of humans, including doubt, pain and mortality. And, I would say, unable to accurately predict the future.

When I think of Jesus on that donkey entering Jerusalem about to face the Passover crowds, the nervous Roman authorities, the city leaders who just want to maintain the peace, I think he couldn’t have known what was going to happen. To my mind, it’s the moment at which he is most human, most like us, not being able to see the future but still holding on to what he knows is God’s call to him, set on the actions he feels compelled to take, no matter what. Like his friends and followers, he is determined and hopeful – but the future is unknown territory.

When I retired from teaching a couple of years ago, I didn’t have a very clear idea what retirement would look like for me. I did have some modest plans: I was going to do some volunteering, I was going to take some classes, I was going to continue to be engaged with folks at church, I was going to do some traveling with my wife, spend time with my kids. I was hopeful everything would fall into place.

HA! There’s a Yiddish saying that I love: “Mann tracht un Gott lacht.” Man plans and God laughs. Or if you prefer a Scottish version, courtesy of Robert Burns: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.”

Man, have my plans “gang aft agley.” There have been moments this past year when my life, and the lives of so many others, have seemed like utter chaos: things happening over which we had no control, little choice, events that threatened not just our plans but our work, our education, our families, our very lives. Our streets and our civil life in turmoil. My anxiety has sometimes frozen me in place. Perhaps yours has as well. We have asked ourselves questions: What is the path forward? How can we make it? How do we get out of this? What’s next? Why?

By the end of that chaotic week in Jerusalem, it’s easy to sense the despair in Jesus’ friends, as whatever hopes they had, have been buried in the tomb with their leader. But then at the dawn of a new week, they rediscover hope in the empty tomb. Now they can begin to look back and to reframe the terrible events of the week. Now they can begin to make meaning out of them. To find a new purpose. They still don’t know what lies ahead, but they know just enough to move forward.

In a sense, this is what we do every Holy Week as we retrace the events of Jesus’ last days in our worship together. We take the chaos of these events and use them all – the fear and suffering and pain and despair and then the vision of Jesus alive again – all of it, to make meaning. And we can use this week as a template for our own lives and experience, to take the chaos and suffering we have experienced and, through the lens of Holy Week, rediscover meaning and purpose for ourselves. And we can do that because the paradox of the Cross is that it is not the final word but actually the sign of God’s  promise to transform suffering and death into new life and new hope.

Jesus’s death scatters his friends into hiding, until they receive the call to come together again, to return to Galilee, to find new community and new purpose together.

When we are able to emerge from our own hiding, to come back together as a community, we don’t know what that will look like. Like the disciples, we will discover that it’s not just a return to our old lives, but an invitation to transformation, to move forward on new roads, new ways of worshipping and being in community,  to new ministries and ways of serving God and God’s people.

 

Amen.

Seventh Sunday of Pentecost by The Rev. Corbet Clark

July 26, 2020

Lessons:

Genesis 28:10-19a

Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

View You Tube video of the sermon here.

 

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.

The Sunday readings always present a challenge and an opportunity. Sometimes they’re very closely related, and you can easily see a theme emerging. Other times it’s harder to find a connection among them. So for a preacher, it’s easiest just to pick one reading (usually the Gospel) to focus on, which is what I, in the interests of efficiency, usually do.

But this morning I’d like to see how we might draw on all three of the readings to try to make sense of our current predicament.

The parable that Jesus tells provides the framework for the predicament: God has planted the world – our world, God’s creation – with good seeds, but somehow the fields are full of weeds.

This will not surprise any gardener, and it must have touched a nerve with his peasant audience. You plant a vegetable garden in carefully prepared soil, and before you know it, the weeds are outcompeting what you planted. Then it becomes a constant chore to dig up and eradicate the weeds before they take over the garden and you lose what you planted. If you’re careless and allow the weeds to grow they take from the soil valuable nutrients that your vegetables need, so any self-respecting gardener works hard to control the weeds.

But this is not how God’s garden works, according to Jesus. Instead, God lets the weeds grow, until the final harvest, when weed and wheat will be separated. As with many of Jesus’ parables, this must have left his listeners scratching their heads. It doesn’t seem to be good cultivation technique. In fact, it seems almost irresponsible.

But Jesus is addressing the world as it is. The world, our world, is a messy place, which all his listeners also understood. God created the world and everything in it, in beauty and goodness, but it seems to us to be filled with wickedness and sorrow. Paul acknowledges this in Romans: all of creation is in “bondage to decay” and is “groaning in labor pains,” waiting for God to redeem it.

We can relate. Disease, violence, bigotry and hatred, poverty and economic anxiety. The sufferings of our present time seem almost overwhelming, and the evils of the world seem to come from many sources – from the outright wickedness of some, from the indifference of others, from willful ignorance of yet others, and from our own failing to do what we know is right. We find ourselves uncertain what to do, and we are afraid.

But Paul counsels his followers not to fall back into slavery to fear. It seems to me that much of what makes me angry about the world today is people – all of us – acting out of fear. We fear disease and harm so we act selfishly. We fear the loss of our familiar ways so we refuse to adapt to necessary changes. We fear those who are different from us – by ethnic background, religion, politics, class, ability – so we attribute to them evil motives, when they, too, are acting out of fear of the unknown. And so fear causes all of us to spiral downward together into hopelessness and inaction.

Jesus has a different take on our situation. Don’t worry about the weeds and focus instead on the coming harvest, Jesus suggests. It is in hope that we are saved, Paul says. Hope IS our salvation. Not a blind hope that ignores the continual stream of bad news but a hope for the full revelation of God’s rule.  A hope that even in an age of anxiety looks for signs that God is present and working among us.

Our ancestor Jacob spends much of his time in Genesis fleeing from one place to another out of fear of what may happen to him. At one point he finds himself in the middle of nowhere and has a visionary encounter with God. He receives a promise of God’s future blessing on him and his family, a promise of God’s presence and protection, a promise so expansive and without limit that it might have seemed absurd. But Jacob finds hope in it. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it,” he says in wonder. That’s a good mantra for us to repeat at this moment: Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.

If I pay attention to the signs of hope around me, I may just be able to perceive the reality of God’s kingdom. Even in the midst of a life-crushing pandemic.

I live in a suburban neighborhood where we don’t really know our neighbors. But that has changed since the shutdowns of the last several months, as people are more at home and we’ve struck up conversations outside. On the Fourth of July something took place that we had never experienced before on our block, in our 30+ years here. We gathered in the street, from small children to old folks, pooled our fireworks and put on a display for the enjoyment of those sitting on lawn chairs on the sidewalk.

Not really a big deal, but I found in that evening of blazing light and explosive noise and laughter, and children screaming, and applause, a sign of the presence of God’s new community of life and peace and joy. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”

Hope, Paul says, is the assurance of things not seen. And currently we don’t see much in this world to make us confident that God is in charge, or that the groaning of all creation will soon end, or that we will all soon be able to join together to solve our mutual dilemmas.

But we, people of faith, are called to search out and find hope in the world, even when it seems outlandish. We are called to find it even in the smallest moments and in unlikely places, and to proclaim it to others. We are called to act as if we had confidence that God’s fields of wheat will soon come to maturity and be harvested, and that the bounty of God’s creation will be shared with everyone.

Amen

Easter Vigil by The Rev. Corbet Clark

Lessons:

Genesis 1:1-2:4a [The Story of Creation]
Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13 [The Flood]
Genesis 22:1-18 [Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac]
Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 [Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea]
Isaiah 55:1-11 [Salvation offered freely to all]
Baruch 3:9-15, 3:32-4:4 or Proverbs 8:1-8, 19-21; 9:4b-6 [Learn wisdom and live]
Ezekiel 36:24-28 [A new heart and a new spirit]
Ezekiel 37:1-14 [The valley of dry bones]
Zephaniah 3:14-20 [The gathering of God’s people]

May God be with you this holy evening.

The Easter Vigil liturgy always begins in darkness. We are all now in a time of darkness, as a nation and as a world community. We know the darkness won’t last forever, but while it does, it’s hard for us to see the light and find our way.

I had an experience of total physical darkness many years ago, on an overnight school faculty retreat at Silver Falls State Park. Teachers were socializing in a common hall in the evening, and when I left the hall I was alone and without a flashlight. We were in the woods, it was a cloudy night, and as I walked out onto the road to go to my cabin I got to a point where the lights from the common hall were completely obscured, and I couldn’t see any lights on the cabins.

It’s a rare thing to be in total darkness outside. I had the eerie feeling that the night was
closing in on me – I could almost feel it. It was very disorienting. I stopped and thought about trying to turn around, but realized I couldn’t find my way back. I had no choice but to go forward. There were night sounds of the woods but no human sounds. I waited for a while, listening and hoping someone with a flashlight would come along. But I finally decided to feel my way along what I knew was the road (I could feel it underfoot).

Stretching my hands in front of me, I moved slowly ahead. After a time, I saw a faint glimmer from a light on one of the cabins ahead, and it was just enough for me to navigate forward with more confidence.

This is the night when the people of Israel began their escape from slavery in Egypt. I can
almost imagine how they felt that night, as Moses led them away from their homes in Egypt, away from their old lives, into the darkness, into the wilderness, with just the light of God to lead them. And I try to imagine what he might have been saying to them:
“We don’t know where we’re going. We don’t know how we’re going to get there. We don’t know what’s going to happen to us. But we know that we’re not going back. We won’t go back.

We can’t go back. And we know that the Lord has promised to guide us forward. So we’re going forward. And we know that wherever we’re going, it won’t be like the home we’ve left behind.

We pray it will be better. The way will surely be hard, but we will stay together, we won’t leave anyone behind, no matter how slow and weak they might be. And when we arrive at a new place, wherever it may be, we will find ourselves a new people.

That’s what I imagine Moses saying.

And I can imagine Jesus’ followers keeping vigil on the dark nights after his death and
burial. They have experienced an unexpected catastrophe. They have no idea what to do or where to go. They fear for their own lives. Even after Jesus’ appearance to them on Easter Day, and their experience of joy and hope, they still don’t know what to do.

According to Saint John, they go back to their lives as fishermen on the Sea of Galilee – until Jesus comes to them and gently reminds them that there’s no going back, no return to their old lives, they need to go forward to continue his work, God’s work, to care for God’s people. The way will be hard and the future uncertain, but God’s Spirit will guide them.

So, like the people of Israel, pursued by a dangerous enemy, and like Jesus’ followers,
stunned by a disaster they didn’t foresee, we, too, move forward, feeling our way along a dark path, trying to find the light that we know will guide us, trusting that the Lord is with us, but uncertain about where God is leading us.

It may be that in six months or a year, we will have gotten “back to normal,” as a church, as a city, as a nation, though I rather doubt it. But even so, I don’t think we will be the same. I don’t think there’s any real going back. I think we will find ourselves changed, in ways we never expected. I think we will find ourselves in a new place, thinking and acting in new ways.

Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the darkness of the Civil War, said this in an address to
Congress, as he prepared to move the nation forward in an entirely new direction, by abolishing slavery: “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present.

The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”

We are indeed beginning to rise – to think and act anew, both as people of faith and as
members of our communities. To find the way forward will not be easy, but we as a people have done this before. We trust that God’s light is with us. We know we need to stay together, not to leave anyone behind, especially the tired and the weak, to seek out and care for those in need.

We know to follow the light wherever it leads, to expect that the Lord is leading us through this dark wilderness to a new place, where we will be renewed as God’s people.

I’d like to close with a prayer from Iona Abbey, that appeared in our Lenten Cookbook:

     May you be out of your depth –
     As the deeps of the night sky
     Contain but cannot explain God’s mystery.
     May you be in the dark –
     As the moon is eclipsed, but held safe,
     With all that is, in the palm of God’s hand.

     May you be lost for words –
     As the Word is spoken
     In the silence of the night,
     In the beauty of God’s creation.

     The loving blessing of God,
     Creator,
     Healer, and Holy Spirit,
     Be in us and around us tonight,
     Tomorrow,
     And all our nights and days.

Amen.

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Corbet Clark

Jan. 26, 2020

Lessons:

Isaiah 9:1-4

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Matthew 4:12-23

Psalm 27:1, 5-13

I’ve been happily retired for a year and a half now, with no plans to go back to teaching, but somehow this September I ended up back in the classroom at my old school, for a three month substitute job. When the offer came up I thought a lot about it and decided in the end that I was called to do this. I knew just what was expected and knew the people I would be working with – plus I knew it had a clear end date.

The disciples whom Jesus called by the Sea of Galilee didn’t know any of those things: what they were being asked to do, how long it would last, or even what the mission was. So I try to imagine how they ended up accepting Jesus’ call.

Jesus was the new guy in town – he had come down from Nazareth, in the hill country, to the shores of Galilee. He didn’t know these guys, so why did he choose them? Did he look at them working on their boats and think, well, these look like hard-working fishermen, so they’d probably be good helpers? Or did he think – and I kind of like this idea – as they’re sitting around mending nets, these guys don’t look like they’re doing much, I’ve got a real job for them?

And why did these men – Peter and Andrew, James and John – decide to pick up and follow Jesus? They don’t know him. Maybe they’d heard there was a new wandering prophet in town. But when Jesus says, “I will make you fish for people,” what does that even mean?

In retrospect, now, the statement makes sense to us, because we know the whole story. But what could they have been thinking? As I imagine the scene, I picture one of them looking at the other, not saying anything. The other one looks back, maybe shrugs and grins. There’s an unspoken agreement, “Well, what the heck, there’s not a whole lot happening here, why not check it out?” And maybe one of them turns to a boy nearby and says, “Watch our nets for a while – we’ll be back.”

Notice what’s happened: they had no idea what they’re being called to do, or how they’re going to do it, or where they’re going to go, or even what the goal is.

Why do they do this? There must have been some sense of trust in Jesus – the way he looked, how he spoke, maybe what little they’d heard about him. And then they had one another. You know how it is when you’re with friends or family and someone suggests doing something, and you say, “Well, I’m in if you are.” Also, there’s the very human sense of curiosity and adventure, the desire to try new things.

I think this is a good example of how God’s call actually works. It would be nice to think that God’s call to us would be obvious, like the blast of a loudspeaker, “Attention! I’m talking to you.”

But that’s not how it works. God is always broadcasting to us – God is like a 24 hour radio network – but most of the time we’re not paying attention because we’re too busy, too preoccupied with immediate concerns. It’s only when we can create a little space in our lives that we can really tune in to what God is saying.

And God calls to us daily: sometimes about big, potentially life-changing things, but most often about daily concerns. Maybe it occurs to us one day that it might be good to get in touch with someone we haven’t seen for a while, and it turns out we make contact at a critical time.

But we often resist the call. When I was thinking about ordination, I thought to myself, “I’m not the right person for this, I don’t know that I have the right gifts, it’s not the right time for me.” I think these are all pretty common responses to God’s call. But God doesn’t really care if we’re prepared, or if we think we can do what’s asked.

In the end, after much pondering, I decided to answer the call. I trusted that God would show me the way, I had friends who supported and encouraged me, and finally I thought, “Well, why not?”

In our lives as Christians, and in our common life, we are often invited to the unexpected, called to do things or follow paths that we feel unprepared for, that we hadn’t planned on, that we don’t think we have the gifts for. God doesn’t care.

In the life of our parish, maybe someone has suggested you’d be good on Vestry, or someone has said that Altar Guild could use some help, or you have a nagging idea that it would be fun to try cooking for the Friday dinner. If we trust that God will guide us and that others will support us, even if we’re not sure how we’re going to do something, maybe it’s still worth a try. The same is true for our parish ministry as a whole. If God is truly calling us to something new, even something that seems beyond our abilities, then, well, “What the heck.”

I know that in my life, when I’ve been able to say “yes” to God’s call, trusting that God will guide me, trusting that others will be with me, and with an openness to new possibilities, I have been richly blessed.

Amen.