Today is Trinity Sunday. It is the only Sunday of the year that is set aside for a theological concept. It is a Sunday to speak to the mystery of God and attempt to explain the unexplainable…to try to speak to the profound mystery that cannot be explained but because we are human beings we enjoy the mystery and want to define God. Thus, the Trinity. God is known in three ways.
First of all God is Creator-Father. The one who has set in motion everything we know within the created order, the world as we know it, Creator of all things, creatures who have lived and died, humanity, space, and time. We speak of God as a Creator and as human beings we delve into the mystery of God as we learn about creation through science and our God given brains to discover what is already there. Profound, mysterious, here we are.
Second, is the person of Jesus who came to us as one of us in our humanity as the reflection of the living God to share with us that that is the fullness of our humanity? He lived and died as one of us. His reflection of God and the mystery of God is a moment in time that is a transition of our story with God. We cannot escape His presence in the world. Millions and millions of people have been a part of his life, death and resurrection over the centuries and today we find the uniqueness of his person in the Eucharist.
And then finally, we experience the mystery of God in the life of the Spirit. Last week we moved through Pentecost and have once again discovered the way that God moves within us and creation. We are surrounded in our individual and community lives by the Spirit of God offering light to the world that often lives in darkness. We know darkness. We know light. We know that the darkness if overcome by light and it is in this knowledge that we are led into relating to God as Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Or maybe expressed as Creator, Redeemer and Friend.
Thousands upon thousands of books have explored the subject of the Trinity so I trust that you will read as many of these as possible to further your knowledge.
But, the truth is that each of us as individuals carries the Trinity within us. And, we are walking, talking, expressions of the Trinity of God as we live and move and have our being.
One way to look at the Trinity is a three legged stool with the seat representing everything within creation, including us, as individuals. When I was in seminary the theologian by the name of Paul Tillach described the meaning of God “as the ground of all being”….everything below us, around us and above us is the ground of our being. In Christianity, we discover ourselves through knowledge of our relationship with our neighbor, ourselves and our God.
I am going to switch to a story now and ask you to reflect on what I have just said. Elaine and I had another opportunity to go to London, England, and feed two cats last month and house sit. This could become an interesting habit. The people we cat set for are friends of our daughter. So, we hope she has many friends in other far away places. We went to a play in London that had just arrived in Piccadilly Square. The name of the play is “Come From Away”. I had never heard of it before, but it is wonderful. It is a story about 9/11.
Where were you on 9/11? I was sitting in a restaurant in Milwaukie having just finished my 7:00 o’clock Tuesday morning service and was ordering my breakfast. The darkness that can invade our lives was happening that day and as the day unfolded we experienced that darkness. And as a helicopter crashed this week in New York, it was a reminder of the tragedy and fear that sweep through New York and our country on 9/11.
But the story of 9/11 was not just in New York City. Planes that were in the air throughout the world were diverted to other landing places because no one knew what was happening.
Do you know about the Island of Newfoundland off the East Coast of Canada? In 2001 on 9/11 the town of Gander in Newfoundland, a town of 10,000 people was suddenly asked to house, feed and comfort 7,000 passengers of 38 planes that were diverted during 9/11. Thirty-eight planes with 7,000 people became a part of the Gander community for 5 days until their planes were allowed to fly to their destinations.
The play is filled with individual stories of how the town responded generously to the tragedy that was unfolding in New York City and the way the people of Gander pulled together to welcome total strangers into their homes. The local radio station would update the needs three times a day and the play itself shows how humanity can do and does respond to the need of others. There is one person that takes care of the responsibility of caring for 19 dogs and cats aboard the planes and even 2 monkeys.
Relationships come into being. People fall in love. Stories of the past are shared. A Rabbi hears the story of a Jewish man who had survived the Holocaust. The call for toilet paper fills up a classroom at the school and the radio announcer has to say, “enough is enough”. The room at the school has no more room for toilet paper.
As the worst was happening in New York City, the 7,000 people saw the best of humanity. Many of the passengers could not speak English, many religions were represented including Muslim…how to accommodate the many and various needs, dietary, medical, relatives in other countries? One passenger could not reach her son who was a firefighter in New York. She later found out that he died during the collapse of the Towers.
A number of children from the Make a Wish Foundation were on their way to Disney World for their birthday. A 16-year-old girl put together a birthday party for them, which included 350 people with balloons, clowns and cakes.
In general, the people of Gander reacted to the strangers as they would their neighbors: opening up their homes, their hearts, offering food, phone time, showers or just a hug. So the play is about the 5 days with 7,000 strangers suddenly arriving in a town of 10,000 people. And, what we find is that in the midst of the darkness there is a light that is lit that shines brightly as people share and care.
And, I would submit to you that the understanding of God as we know God was being acted out in the midst of a community that accepted their place within Creation, shared their space with diverse people. To remind ourselves of the reading from Romans that we heard earlier, I will read it again. “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
The God of History was acting through the lives of many and this story in Gander, Newfoundland is just one example of how God moves within creation bringing light out of darkness, healing out of suffering as we offer ourselves to each other and to God.
We live in the moment. And then that moment is in the past. And we move on to new moments in the future,
Many moments in time are forgotten, and even though they remain in our memory, we sometimes have difficultly pulling those memories back into our present. Many of our moments carry meaning for us and we remember them and realize how important those moments have been for us.
My first meaningful moment in time was when I was 2 ½ years old. I have a snapshot in my memory of Pearl Harbor. The news was on the radio and I can remember my parents and sisters huddled around the radio receiving the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. I can remember opening the door for a neighbor who came by to talk with my father. Our lives changed from that moment on because my Dad joined the Army.
We have moments of spiritual awaking…profound at times and sometimes gradual as we awaken to those moments when we ask, “who we are in relationship to the creation and the one who gave us life.” Profound moments under the stars, the moon, on the beach, hiking in the mountains. My most profound moment of spiritual awaking was in the desert of West Texas, under a full moon and looking at my footprint in the sand and realizing a relationship with the one who created me and all that was within creation….a moment I have never forgotten and still receive strength from in my inner life.
Today is January 20, 2019. Can any of you remember what you were doing on January 20, 1968? Raise your hand if you do. Goodness, I must be the only one. I was coming down the aisle here at Grace Memorial during the offertory and shouting, “It’s a boy.” Our son, David, was born on 20 January 1968 and he is 51 years old today. He was born 10 days after my ordination to the pristhood here at Grace Memorial on January 10, 1968. Moments that remain.
The bible is all about moments of meaning that were remembered by individuals and the larger community that experienced them. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in today’s reading expresses the gifts of people he has known and personally experienced their various gifts. He writes to the people in Corinth a letter to build up their faith and as that letter is captured by them it was captured for the centuries and is captured for us today. A moment for them becomes part of our on going moments of learning’s from Paul. In John’s Gospel today, Jesus performs his first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Who was there in that moment that put it in writing so we can share something of that meaningful time and find ourselves reliving what Jesus must have been like in a social setting rejoicing with a couple bringing their lives together.
How many of you remember when you were born? That’s a trick question isn’t it. But the stories of our birth are so important to hear from those who were part of your birth, at the hospital, or in a taxi, or maybe even at home. Moments of life, moments of birth, moments of meaning.
And of course we know the pain of loss as we experience the loss of a loved one as they die and give up their last breath. One of the moments of death for me was when I was in Chaplaincy training for a year at Emanuel Hospital. I was on call one night and was called in at 2 o’clock in the morning. I came to the room of a woman who had died and met her husband standing by the bed. I spent about 45 minutes talking with him as he recounted their move during the depression to Coos Bay, Oregon. He came from the East Coast with his bride and ended up in Coos Bay with $2 in his pocket. He worked for years in the timber industry. He talked about his marriage and his children and most of all he talked about his wife,
At the end of our conversation, I offered a prayer with him by her bed. Then he took the wedding band off his wife’s finger and said a simple, “Thank you”. I thought of the marriage service, “until death do us part”.
It was for me a moment of grace in the midst of life and death. It was for me a moment captured in my memory that has helped me understand the meaning of relationships.
We all have moments we remember from conversations with people. One of the profound moments for me in my own learning about the Palestine/Israel conflict was on my first trip to Bethlehem in 1983 with 16 people from St. Marks Cathedral in Seattle when I was serving as Canon Pastor. I was one who thought I knew something about the history and the issues and found out my profound ignorance as we were led around the region by a Palestinian guide. He took us to a glass factory in Bethlehem where a young man about 16 years of age was blowing a glass bottle. I have a memory of his saying to all of us, “I am so glad to meet you, You are Americans and we know that Americans care for correcting injustices of people and you will go home and help us to end the military occupation that we live under.” I have often wondered what happened to that young man as to his continuing his life under military occupation…and our own complicity as Americans in continuing to fund the occupation with our tax money. Again, a moment that led me into many moments of learning and it continues.
Of course, we all have moments that we do not want to remember but are also part of what we experience. I watched 60 Minutes recently on TV and saw a segment of the show which was about a person named Ryan Green with the nickname of Speedo. Ryan is an African American opera singer who in his youth got in trouble and was jailed. He had a teacher that believed in him and his talents and the teacher told him, “Do not let this moment define who you are.” Now, he is a famous opera singer. We all have moments to move beyond and discover how to use them to our advantage rather than our disadvantage.”
We also have our embarrassing moments. What are your most embarrassing moments? One of mine was at a General Convention of the Episcopal Church where a roving reporter asked me about an embarrassing moment. I shared the fact that once when I was leading a Sunday service; I had to go to the bathroom. I forgot to turn my microphone off. I will never forget the faces of the people when I returned to the service. What was more embarrassing is that my story was on the video at the convention and thousands heard my story. Oh well.
I know that each of us is captured by our moments in our national and international history. Some of us have experienced the end of WWII, John F. Kennedy assassination, Martin Luther King assassination, and on and on. A book I am reading now by John Meacham, The Soul of America, expresses the turning points in our Nations history. In his book he speaks to the moment in our national history about a sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The sermon by Martin Luther King was given 6 days before his assassination in Montgomery, Alabama. A quote from that sermon, “we are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” King said. “And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made: this is the way it is structured.” Tomorrow we honor Martin Luther King as a person who has made a difference in our national story. Moments that we can recognize that can help us to move into our future.
So, how do we embrace our moments that have been there and those yet to come? How do we allow ourselves a way to embrace and nurture our lives with meaningful moments….painful as well as joy filled moments?
I believe it is important to learn how to reflect on our lives as these moments become a part of our past and can soon be forgotten. If we can take a moment of meaning and reflect on it and savor it like we do with good food or a piece of candy we are able to let it become a part of us rather than a lost memory. I am going to leave you with homework. Start with 5 of the most important moments of your life and add to it with your reflections. Before long, if you use pictures from the past, and old letters received and also diaries you will have so many moments to reflect on you will not be able to count them. Reflect and enjoy. Life is short. We need to savor and reflect on our lives, we need to reflect on who we are and challenge what our moments have really meant to us. I like to reflect in prayer and realize that every Eucharist is a meaningful moment that both reminds us of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus but is a moment in time in the here and now that is a sacred moment that moves us into the future…..a future that always includes God.
Our lesson from Mark’s Gospel today is probably the most controversial of the teaching that Jesus gave to the people in the 1st century. Why? Because it touched the nerve of religious law…the nerve of religious practice.
Thirty years ago I had the opportunity to spend some quality time with the Chief Archaeologist at the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem. We spent good time together on several subjects and one of the subjects we talked about was animal bones. The old city of Jerusalem had gone through some major archaeological digs and of course there is always an interest in what ancient people ate. He said that sites of where the citizens of Jerusalem who lived near the Temple Mount were often sites where pig bones were dug up and were from the first century. But in the Galilee region very few pig bones were discovered. What that suggested to him was that the food laws of not eating pork were not being adhered to in Jerusalem while they were being honored 100 miles away in the Galilee region. In other words, the people in Jerusalem, probably including religious authorities, were violating the food laws while telling others to follow them. And, so, Jesus recognizes the hypocrisy and challenges the authorities in the teaching today. And it got him into a lot of trouble.
He challenges traditions and it threatened to undermine the authority of the Pharisee and Sadducees.
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand:…there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach.”
What each of us is experiencing all the time, every moment of time, is what it means to be a human being. It is not what we eat that makes us human, it is what we smell, taste, hear, see, and touch that allows us to process how we are to act as a human being.
How do we develop as human beings? As a child, there are moments that we will never remember…the care of a mother or father…being held, nurtured, from the earliest of moments to our point of death where a loved one may hold our hand or touch our face and offer words of love and care as the last words we hear on this earth.
We are less than human when we loose sight of the other and spend all of our time and energy on our own self-needs. We in effect can destroy the good around us as well as that good within us. The word narcissism comes to mind.
As an individual, as a community, we are challenged to be human. To Love. To love God, to love our neighbor, to love ourselves…the Trinity of Love.
Keith Moore, a developmental psychologist who has studied infants for decades and is a very special friend of mine from St. Marks Cathedral in Seattle, has spent his career in understanding the development of children from infancy to three years of age and into adulthood. I asked him to comment on this scripture and the following comes from that conversation: “As human beings we develop from early infancy of seeing the other as like oneself. Our moral development is built on a realization, which begins in infancy and we probably experience it as parents as we watch our infant babies imitate us…like sticking out your tongue and your child responds to you by imitating you. We laugh because it is cute. The child laughs back and communication has occurred. They cannot see their own tongue or face yet they realize that your face and tongue are like their own and they copy. This ability can be shown in many facial gestures and even newborns. The implication that this innate “God given” ability to see the other like me is the root of all later understanding of moral development.”
When I was in seminary I remember reading about experiments that went on in Nazi Germany regarding how to perpetuate the super race that Nazi Germany saw themselves to be…the ultimate in white nationalism. They found the perfect people who represented for them all they could define within the culture. Men and women were paired to have children. It was like a manufacturing process. Men would impregnate many women and many children were born. They were raised without parents to become the super race of the Third Reich. The children were seldom held, did not receive nurture and did not feel loved. They were born to perpetuate the super race. After the war studies were done to define these children and their lack of development. It showed the lack of development in infancy and early childhood that are natural to adults who raise children in love and nurtured their growth.
We define ourselves and others as we receive gifts into our inner life that makes us human.
How do we receive these gifts into our lives? Primarily, through our five senses.
We have ears to hear, to listen to the other is such an important part of knowing the other and learning about ourselves.
We touch…we touch the other in order to share intimate moments and to allow ourselves to be touched by the other. I can remember when the passing of the peace in the liturgy of the church began in the 1960s. It was difficult for people to touch another person at that time. An interview on NPR yesterday with a POW that had been in the camp with Senator John McCain was asked how they survived. His answer was, “We held hands. We held each other.”
We taste…we have taste buds that help us to enjoy the food we eat, the wine we drink, the bread we eat. We share meals together. Community is formed around how we taste life with each other.
We see…we are able to look into the eyes of the other. We see beauty, we see terrible events that we do not want to remember, we look in a mirror and are often surprised at what we see, we see the other in ourselves, we see ourselves in the other.
We smell…we smell the very fragrance of creation. We breathe in the fresh air at the beach and smell the ocean. We smell the flowers in our garden, the food that we eat and we also smell the pollution that we smell in today’s world.
We know creation through all five senses.
And, then we speak to others out of our experiences and by doing so we share our inner thoughts, our inner struggles and our inner fears, our goodness, our badness, our own development and on and on and on as we share our lives with others.
And so the person of Jesus speaks to us today in the Gospel of Mark. He teaches us what is means to be human. He is able to touch people and they find healing. He tasted the food and bread with the crowds that he traveled with. He celebrated life with them…he rejoiced, he wept, he laughed, he challenged them.
He saw them as individuals who were on a journey of life and wanted them to know that God was with them on their journey.
He listened to their fears, their hopes, their confusions, their lack of understanding. As a reflection of the God of Creation, he used all of his five senses to relate to each of those who came to him. He modeled for them the very human aspects of life that is in relationship…..in relationship to the God of Creation…in relationship to neighbor…in relationship to his own inner self…all of it reflecting Love because Love is and always will be the reflection of God.
So here we are today. Sitting in a pew at Grace Memorial….listening to the One who challenges us to reflect our human life and not give in to the evil impulses that surround us and betray us. “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within and they defile a person.”
We begin our lives in infancy in being able to know our own selves through how we are to know the other. We defile ourselves and the other by betraying ourselves as well as the other.
So it is true that by our fruits, we shall be known. What we do, what we say, how we live our lives so that others may know the meaning of life because we have learned it for ourselves and want other to join us in the journey. To be able to touch, to be able to taste, to be able to smell, to be able to listen, to be able to see, helps us to stay human. We can enjoy the journey as it opens up surprises and hope.
Today I want to address the subject of memories and reflections. We are a people with many stories to tell and we always need to be able to tell our stories and listen to the stories of others. First of all, I want to hold up the memory of Herod who was the king when Jesus was born. The Herod we are hearing about today in the Gospel story was his son. But, he had inherited all the traits of his father. His father, Herod the Great, was a great builder but people feared him because of his cruelty. He was very ambious and was a vassal to the Roman Empire for over 40 years, doing their bidding and holding on to his power. He married 9 times and during his reign he executed his first wife and later on he executed 3 of his sons. He was paranoid and unstable……so our memory of Herod is of someone who rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, built Masada, built the Herodian and Caesarea along with many palaces and fortresses. His tomb was discovered 20 years ago in the Herodian, which is a mountain fortress he built that today looks like a volcano, outside of Bethlehem and his history is being rewritten in the Israeli Museum. His tomb was violated and destroyed apparently by those who were angry with him during his lifetime. He had 2000 personal guards to protect him while he was King of Judea. Herod was and remains a person who changed history by his building program. But, his cruelty is the main memory that remains.
Secondly, I would like to address you today with my own memories and reflections on my beginning of ministry here at Grace Memorial in the years 1967 – 1970. I have alluded to those years in past sermons and several have asked me to speak to them.
I was in seminary at the Church Divinity of the Pacific in Berkeley, California, from 1964 – 1967. Each senior class would visit parishes throughout the Northwest in January of their senior year to promote and raise money for the seminary. I was assigned to come to Grace Memorial in January of 1967. I came and met people and told about the seminary on Sunday morning from this pulpit. Bud Hewitt was the Senior Warden and Duane Alvord was the Rector. I returned home to Berkeley and received a call that Grace wanted me to come back and bring my wife, Elaine, for a job interview. I was scheduled to go to my diocese in New Mexico and Southwest Texas to take care of three missions 100 miles apart from each other. I wanted to begin my ministry as an assistant to learn what to do before I got out on my own….so I said “yes” and came back to Portland to interview. So, I moved to Portland….I did not know a soul. It was exciting. I did feel that God had given me the right place to begin my ministry. We moved here after seminary concluded and I started work in July, 1967. We moved into the corner house on Halsey as the Parish had purchased it recently. We lived there for 3 years and both David and Sondi were born and baptized here at Grace Memorial. I was ordained a Deacon at my home parish in Pecos, Texas, on June 29, 1967 and ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Carmen on January 10, 1968, here at Grace Memorial.
My job included 4 days a week at Grace Memorial working with young people, church school, and acolytes. My Diocesan job was to spend two days a week working with setting up services in retirement homes, nursing homes and hospitals for Episcopalians, visit local jails, take tasks assigned by the Bishop with things he did not want to address, work with the Portland Council of Churches on minority issues, work with civil rights issues, etc, etc, etc. My salary was $3,600 each year, plus housing. By the end of two years, I realized I had two full time jobs.
The 1967 Convention of the Episcopal Church was in Seattle, WA and it was that convention that voted to allow women to be on church vestries and to allow women to be deputies to conventions. Women’s ordination was beginning to be talked about. Janet Graue was the first women on the Vestry at Grace Memorial and became treasurer. Janet signed my first paycheck. She attended my parish at St. John’s in Milwaukie and would come up on her birthday every year until she died at 105. She would always tell the people she had signed my first paycheck.
It was also the 1967 Convention that started the process of changing the 1928 Prayer Book. We began to have trial services of what became our new prayer book.
We started using the trial services at Grace Memorial and discussing the reasons for changes.
It was in April of 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I remember joining a silent procession with candles what was then Williams Avenue near Emanuel Hospital. It is now Martin Luther King Street. The country was in turmoil. Grace Memorial was right on the edge of the intercity. We were a congregation without anyone of color belonging to the parish. Then one Sunday, a Black family by the name of Baugh showed up in the congregation. The name, Ted Baugh, may ring a bell with some of you because he kept coming with his family and remained a member of St. Philips. When I asked him about his choice to come to Grace Memorial he informed me that he felt called as a missionary to help white people to understand what was happening in the civil rights movement…..and so he did. We had living room dialogs on the subject of racial discrimination, civil rights, and the differences of our various church beliefs. We entered into this dialog with Augustana Lutheran, Central Lutheran, West Minister Presbyterian and Freemont Methodist that brought us together with youth programs as well.
Robert Kennedy came to Portland in 1968 on his journey to run for President. I along with 25 other clergy had breakfast with him at West Minister Presbyterian Church the day before he left for California. He was assassinated during his visit in California. The country was coming apart at the seams. The Vietnam War was happening and getting worse. Young people were fleeing to Canada to escape the draft and were sleeping in the parks and churches along their way. I became the Chair of the Alienated Youth Program for the Portland Council of Churches. My committee included Tom Walsh, from the now Walsh Construction Company and Neil Goldsmidt who had just graduated from law school and would become Mayor of Portland 6 years later. My baptism by fire continued.
When I left to go for a year of chaplaincy training at Emanuel Hospital, I felt that I had really gotten a full dose of learning from the parish. I was not sure about my calling to parish ministry and thought I was being called to hospital chaplaincy. Bishop Spofford in Eastern Oregon asked me to come to Baker in 1971 and it was clear my calling was to parish ministry. I served as a parish priest for 37 years before my retirement 15 years ago. I give credit to Grace Memorial for launching me as a parish priest.
And now for my third memory and reflection. The Episcopal Church finished its’ convention this past Friday. I planned to attend and made plans months ago to attend. I put off knowing where I would stay and then out of the blue I was contacted by a childhood friend who asked me to stay with him and his wife in Austin, Texas, where the convention was held.
I had not talked with Sam Williams for 60 years. We grew up next door to each other, we played together, got in trouble together, our sisters were friends with each other, the relationship had been there all the time we were growing up. Sam is 2 years younger and so I became something of a model for him as he told me last week. His dad was always putting him down with, “Why can’t you be more like Dick Toll?”
And so last week was a week not only filled with memories and reflections from the church convention but with memories and reflections of growing up. Sam became a helicopter pilot for the Navy at the same time I was ordained. I did not know this but he often had to refuel in Pecos, my hometown, and would stay over with his family. During that time, he would help with my mother in taking care of my dad who had had a serious stroke and was home in bed. He would come over and help my mother put him in bed. Memories like that in our knowing the same people and listening to memories of things I had forgotten, it was a wonderful time for both of us.
And so I want to leave you today with the memory and reflection of the Bible story and the cruelty of Herod and his son.
The memories and reflections of Grace Memorial, 1967 – 1970.
The memories and my reflections of last week with a friend I have not seen or spoken with in 60 years.
And, to remind you that whenever we worship together we are in a moment in time of memory and reflection of salvation history. We listen to the Bible, sing songs written by people who often tell us of their faith through songs, and we remind ourselves of Jesus and the Last Supper as we enter into a moment of memory and reflection in the Holy Eucharist. We remind ourselves where we come from and to whom we belong, to God and to each other. Amen.
As Christians, we proclaim the person of Jesus to be our model for humanity and our understanding of God. The reflection of God for us is in the New Testament and primarily in the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. John’s gospel primarily portrays the Divinity of Jesus. The other gospels are more in touch with the humanity of Jesus.
In John’s gospel today, we have the words of Jesus, “I am the good Shepherd. The good Shepherd lays his life for the good of the sheep.”
In the pastoral world of the first century, sheep and shepherds were a large part of the culture. Today, in our busy life we tend to only see movies or pictures of pastoral scenes but it is a powerful image.
John has a way of defining Jesus that hints at the story of Moses and the burning bush in the Book of Exodus. Remember that story? Moses is tending the flock of sheep of his father-in-law, Jethro. He has left Egypt and Moses is confronted by God who reveals the name of God in a way that has never been revealed before. It is in the midst of a burning bush that is not consumed. Moses is directed by God to rescue the Israelites from Egypt. Moses wants to be able to say who sent him. Moses receives the answer from God, “I am who I am. Tell them I am has sent me to you.”
John’s Gospel refers to Jesus using the statement, “I AM” any number of times. It is as though symbolically John wants to refer to the “I AM who I AM” from the burning bush to the quotation of Jesus. Please note that the following statements from John begin with, “I AM”.
“I am the bread of life.” John 6
“I am the light of the world.” John 8
“I am the door. If anyone enters, he will be saved.” John 10
“I am the resurrection and the life.” John 11
“I am the way, the truth and the life.” John 14
“I am the vine, you are the branches.” John 15
“I am the good Shepherd.” John 10
Yes, I am who I am. The grounding of God in all humanity and especially in the person of Jesus.
This past New Year’s Eve, I had a very different experience. My wife and I were in Paris with our daughter, her husband and their two children, our grandchildren. I had never heard of the Paris Catacombs before. I assumed they were like the catacombs in Rome. Wrong. We went to the catacombs in Paris and it was very interesting to say the least.
There are 180 miles of tunnels that lie 50 to 75 feet underneath Paris. The tunnels are centuries old and were cut out of solid rock. Miners cut out the rock to build the city of Paris. They mined the rock over many centuries.
In the late 1780s, Paris had a crisis. A plague struck and people were dying by the thousands. There was no place to bury them and a health crisis continued throughout the city.
Finally, the bodies were buried in the underground tunnels. The idea caught on to the point that over the next 50 years all of the cemeteries within the city of Paris were emptied so that buildings could be built in Paris over where the cemeteries has been. For years there would be workers digging up graves every night and transporting the bones to the underground tunnels. Six million people have their bones stacked in the underground tunnels. I asked the questions about head stones and found out they were used for paving the streets.
I recount this story because as I looked on the stacked skulls and bones, I thought of them as living, breathing human beings who at one point in time had their hopes and dreams, their families, their thoughts, their feelings. They lived out their lives in the presence of each other and in the presence of God. Many of them would have related to the person of Jesus. They had their secrets. They had their fears. They had their enemies. They had their loved ones. They were a people who were a part of evil, good, prayer, war, love, revolution, freedom, hate and resistance. Yes, a small moment of history with six million people stacked together. Who were they? Who are we? Six million people stacked on top of each other.
I am who I am. Each person had been a part of the knowledge of their unique and individual I am. They had been mothers, fathers, solders, doctors, children, sailors, politicians, poets, priests and teachers. They made history.
And my guess is that some of them may have been my relatives and your relatives. I could probable find my DNA and we are the recipients of their decisions, their commitments, their mistakes and their stories.
“I am the good Shepherd.” And Jesus comes among us to show us the way. We stray from the way and we get lost along the way. We return to the way.
Each of us is on our own journey. Each of us claims the, “I am” of our own humanity. I am who I am…..there has never been another person like me and there never will be. There has never been another person like you and there never will be.
We bring to our own moments the uniqueness of our own humanity. Each of us is unique, gifted and we discover who we are as we journey along the way. We hear Jesus say, “I AM” in all of those statements I read earlier. When we accept the person of Jesus, we find him to be grounded in all our humanity and we know the God of all creation. As I looked at all those stacked bones in Paris, I could not help but wonder how the humanity of those individuals has been influenced by Jesus. I will never know. But, what I do know is in the here and now of my own life.
I do know the good Shepherd, I do know something of the mystery of God in the burning bush, “I am who I am” God tells Moses. I am the reflection of this God Jesus tell us in John’s gospel. I personally accept this for myself. I am and you are the reflections of this same living God.
We are experiencing Advent….the preparation for the coming of Jesus. We hear from John the Baptist during the time when the Roman empire was causing great unrest, torture, killing, and brutality to the people who lived throughout the region but especially in the Galilee. The people were experiencing an occupation that was very cruel and many of the religious thinkers of the day were predicting an end to the world or a messiah that would come and lead an army to vanquish the Romans. Their expectations were many and varied.
But what happened was the most unexpected event that no one was predicting.
What happened was a man by the name of Jesus. Born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth in the Galilee, a person raised in the understanding of what it meant to belong to a tribe, it just so happened his tribe was Jewish. He was aware of the teaching of what we now call The Old Testament. He was aware of the danger of speaking out against the Roman occupation. Every breath he had taken, every step he took, every conversation he had, every person he met, was somehow affected by the cruelty of the Roman occupation. People lived in fear and yet hoped for a future without fear. They were hungry for the words of John the Baptist. And John was aware that a new moment in time was coming. He probably knew Jesus. He had probably heard him. And they were probably friends who disagreed on matters of religion and politics. Jesus would say, “You have heard it said by men of old but I say to you”. And he spoke with authority.
John recognized that authority and was preparing people for the ministry of Jesus. So much happened in the brief ministry of Jesus. No more than 3 years and maybe even less.
One of the most important teachings Jesus made was to equate the love of God, neighbor, and self that had never before been taught. He taught us the Great Commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment and the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
We have heard this so many times over the years; we fail to recognize it as a revolutionary teaching in the 1st century and remain revolutionary today.
At the time of Jesus, love your neighbor means that you love your neighbor within your tribe within your own family…..yet Jesus was revolutionary in teaching that to love your neighbor you were to love your enemies and to give special attention to people who were excluded such as Samaritans and all people could share and know the love of God as well as sinners and unbelievers.
What was so revolutionary about the Commandments to love God, neighbor and self was that Christianity left its tribal heritage in Jerusalem. Under the leadership of the Apostle Paul Christianity became a worldwide religion that has incorporated many cultures, languages, and people of many colors. In fact, every child sees the baby Jesus as a reflection of their own part of humanity. At the Roman Catholic Basilica in Nazareth, Jesus and Mary are artistically celebrated as persons of color whether in India, Africa, Europe, Asia, South America and that is how it should be. The word becoming flesh in the person of Jesus is about all of humanity….at all times and in all places. One of my favorite places to visit in Jerusalem is the Church of the Paternoster where the Lord’s Prayer is on the wall in over a hundred languages. Proof of the way the Spirit has moved in the lives of millions of people over the centuries.
I would like to submit another way as to how the Spirit is moving in our lives today. Sixty-nine years ago today the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations produced a document that needs to be honored by all people throughout the world. But especially by Christians as they reflect the Commandments of Jesus. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, I will read from its preamble.
“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and unalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscious of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
Whereas the peoples of United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress in better standards of life in larger freedom.
Now therefore, the General Assembly, proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples in all nations, to the end that every individual and every organs of society, keeping this declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observant, both among people of member states themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.”
Following this preamble, there are 30 articles that spell out the meaning of human rights. In your spare time you may wish to read it.
All of us know this past week the disruption that is taking place regarding Jerusalem. I received a letter that I wish to speak to you about as part of human rights regarding Palestinians and especially those who live in East Jerusalem.
Subject of the letter “Still occupied in East Jerusalem”.
The following letter is someone who works for an Israeli peace organization called B’Tselem. He as a Palestinian is employed for purposes of Jewish human rights organization issues.
“My name is Kareem Jubran. I am a Palestinian in East Jerusalem. On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump “recognized” Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Yet this announcement does not change the fact that East Jerusalem is occupied territory, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are deprived of political rights. We must recognize this reality and work relentlessly to change it.”
He goes on further to say:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”, states The Human Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 and marked every year on December 10th. Yet, since annexing East Jerusalem unlawfully in 1967, Israel has made it unequivocally clear that Palestinians are unwanted in the city and repeatedly demonstrated how little it values our lives. On a routine basis, Israel authorities wrongfully detain, wound, and even kill us, they deny us permits to build our homes, schools and roads and they bar us from living with our love ones who are not residents of Israel. After more than 50 years of deliberate underdevelopment, the Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem suffer from overcrowding, poverty and substandard infrastructure.” End of letter.
Human rights violations occur in every country throughout the world including our own country. It is our task as Christians throughout the world to challenge these violations and to adhere to the teachings of Jesus especially within the great commandment of love of God, Neighbor and Self. All three understandings of love becomes a focus for spirituality that reflects love to a world that often gives in to evil. We often do not advocate for our own rights much less the rights of others. Witness the explosion of sexual harassment and how women are now dismantling a male dominance over women. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 was a direct response out of the evils of World War II and the Holocaust and the ways in which we mistreat each other. We know there is a way that points us in a direction that leads to healing and hope. That way has been tried and tested and proven by countless pilgrims in their own journey of life in relationship to Jesus Christ. It is a way that leads us to accept and love God, our neighbor and ourselves. It opens doors into relationships, issues of human rights, new learning’s and brings into focus the future. That way is here and now and coming to us always as the future breaks into our lives. God is with us. Oh come, oh come Emanuel.