Seventh Sunday of Easter by The Rev. Richard Toll

Lessons:

Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-21
John 17:20-26

 

From the reading today, from the Revelation of John, we hear the words “I am the Alpha and the Omega” the Beginning and the End.

Love is the word that Jesus speaks to today from the Gospel of John.  He is telling us that the love of the father is known in the person of Jesus and is to be reflected in all that know him.  That is our task as Christians pure and simple, to show the love of God.  There is a song that we still sing, “and they will know we are Christians by our love”.

Have any of you tried to define time?  I know scientists go round and round with theories about time and space.  We believe that time is a part of the creative order and the mystery of God creating out of nothing is well beyond our imagination or knowledge.  We know time because we experience it.  I would offer also that we know God by experiencing the God of Creation.  We have learned to divide time into years, months, days, hours, minutes, seconds.  Ancient people had their own definitions of time and their calendars.

I have always been fascinated by time since we are all creatures of time.  Saint Augustine, in the 4th century was asked by a student the question, “What was God doing before the creation?”  Augustine’s response was to say, “God was making Hell for people who asked such questions.”

But we do wonder about time and space.  We define ourselves by time.  How old are we?  We began life at a certain point in time.  We did not choose to be born but we do have choices of how we spend our time.  We find our freedom to choose one of the great gifts that God has given to humanity.  We can choose to be a reflection of God’s love or choose to bring hell on earth by our bad choices.

We lost a real prophet this past week.  Daniel Berrigan, a 94 year old Jesuit priest spent his entire life defining issues of justice, war and peace and got in trouble many times over the years.  Arrested many times, he leaves quite a legacy in the Catholic Church.  You could hate him or love him but he and his brother, Phillip, were not timid in confronting the powers that be whether it was the Church or governments.  He was honored on the front page of The New York Times on Wednesday and his life was full of meaning.  He used his time well with us and made a difference to the world whether you agreed or disagreed with him.  He will be remembered because of his simplicity of life style as a Jesuit priest and his prophetic message.

Yes, time is a part of creation and we experience it.  Next time you look in the mirror,

remind yourself that the reflection you see was at one time much younger.  And the hopes and dreams of the past are being lived out even now as the song goes, “time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future.”

So here we are and what are we doing with our time?

First of all, we need to define who we are within community.  Whoever we are, we come together as a family of some type.  We grow up in relationship with mothers, fathers, siblings, friends, playmates, and slowly we learn to love, usually because we have experienced love from people who love us.  Today is Mother’s Day and we have our special memories to reflect on with our Mothers living or dead.  A life was born and we are here today out of that moment that brought us into the world.

And by extension of the love we have received, we learn to love and experience God as a reflection of that love.  We can even learn that God loves us so much that he loved us into existence.  He even loves us to the point of joining with our life and death struggles in the person of Jesus.  “So that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them”.

We are creatures intended to be in community.  We belong to many communities.

Our family.

Our neighborhood.

Our church.

Our town or city.

Our county.

Our state.

Our country.

Our world.

And now we feel a deeper knowledge and connection with the universe and the mysteries still unfolding as we probe more into space.

We are meant to be participants in community. To be members or leaders of groups, committees, make decisions, vote, give money, eat together, worship together, sing together.  My own commitment for the past 35 years is with the Palestinian Christian community and learning so much from them as to their commitment to faith and to justice.  It gives me life to learn from those who reflect the present of Jesus in their own lives.  Each of us needs to find how to give of ourselves to others and receive from them.  Many people today are isolated and do not relate to community.  Again, it is the task of Christians to break through isolation and help others find community.  Grace Memorial has a fine history of doing just that.

I believe we are meant to live out life together with our unique diversities and find ways to make sure all people are an important part of society.  We are testing that expectation in our political life even now.

Within the various communities of our lives, we live out our time on earth.  Hopefully making a difference for the good of humanity.

If God is love and we are to reflect that love, how do we go about life?

There are two primary parts of each of us.

(1)  We are takers. We take from others and some of this is very very good.  We learn from others, we are recipients of gifts from others.  We are people who need to be in relationship in order to take and receive what others offer.

We are takers in a harmful way also.  We use others for our own benefit that might be harmful to them.  We take advantage of trusting relationships and we gossip or tell lies or manipulate in a way that harms them.  We think of ourselves only and do what it takes to further our own needs.  We do not stop long enough to say thank you.  We just take what we want and forget about others.  The other can often be another person….the other is also God who gave us life.

(2)  We are givers.  We learn in life that it is important to give of ourselves.   We give of ourselves in various ways.  We learn that we have a gift of teaching, a gift of relationship, a gift of organizing, a gift of substance…money, a gift of knowledge, a gift of sharing, and on and on and on.  We learn to give away these various gifts or talents and make life easier for others.  That part of us that gives may never know how much our gifts have meant to the recipients.

I can remember this learning in my life.  I had a scoutmaster in high school.  He was a doctor.  He gave of his time to our scout unit.  Our scout unit hiked from the north rim to the south rim of the Grand Canyon.  We took rubber rafts and floated the Rio Grande through the magnificent canyons of the Big Bend National Park in Texas, (when the Rio Grande had water).  We took a dozen horses for two weeks of camping in the Big Bend National Park and we would ride across into Mexico.  What a wonderful experience with his leadership.

In my senior year of college, I set down at my desk and wrote him a letter of “thank you”.  I expressed all that I had learned from him and let him know how grateful I was.  I was to experience his death and funeral the following year.

I had taken and received from him.  I was able to let him know how important he was in my growing up years.  If I have learned anything in life, it is to seek relationships with meaning and find how to take and give in each relationship.

And, so, love is the name of the game.  It is a word that includes so much of what we experience in our time with each other and with God.  Jesus gave of himself so that we might know life.

Lets find meaning in all that we do in the time ahead.  We call it the future.

Amen.

Good Friday by The Rev. Richard Toll

Lessons:

Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Hebrews 10:16-25
John 18:1-19:42
Psalm 22

 

Jerusalem – in the 1st century – a city built on a hill looking out over the Jordan Desert with a distant view of the Dead Sea.  A fabulous location.  Thousands of pilgrims flocking to the city for religious reasons and to honor the role of the temple in the religious life of the Jewish people.  It was Passover and the remembrances of the escape from slavery in Egypt.

The city was run by two factions.  The religious authorities that maintained the temple and the sacrificial systems and the Roman authorities that had conquered the area over 70 years before and held a tight and brutal grip on the people.

Who was in charge?  Obviously, the military power of Rome.

Immediately outside the city gates was a rock quarry that had been used recently to dig deep into the earth to cut stones for the building of the temple under the leadership of Herod and to add to the walls that surrounded the city.  The quarry had been used up and was no longer in use.  It had been turned into a recreational site for the people of Jerusalem.  On one side of the park was a rock hill that grew from the bottom of the quarry to about 50 or 60 feet high.  It was a portion of the quarry that had large cracks in it and had not been available to cut up and use for building stones.  Thus, as the quarry was dug deeper the stone hill grew higher.  It became known as Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, the place where crucifixions were carried out regularly by the Romans who maintained a brutal occupation of the people.

This site was discovered in about the Year 325 when Helena, the mother of Constantine came to the region to discover the Holy sites.  Constantine had made Christianity the official religion of the empire and Pilgrims were beginning to go to Jerusalem.  The site of Golgotha was underneath a pagan temple.  The memories of the Christians in the 4th Century pointed out the site and the pagan temple was destroyed and the excavation led to the discovery of Golgotha.  The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built in 335, is on the site today in the old city of Jerusalem.

In the 1st Century, crucifixions were for public entertainment.  Crowds would gather and enjoy watching the condemned criminals placed on wood planks and then raised up on the rock hill.  They would eventually die of asphyxiation, heat, and torture.  The crowds loved it.  It was public entertainment and gambling would take place as to how long a person could live.  Death penalty still remains a public entertainment for many countries including our own.

Jesus was among those being crucified.  A common criminal according to Jewish law and the Romans had gone along with the religious authorities in order to get rid of a troublesome upstart who had disrupted the people, disrupted the money changers in the temple and although he appeared to be innocent of any crime, he was seen to be a danger to society with his outspokenness.

Crucify him, crucify him – the cries still ringing in the ears of those who watched him be led to the cross.

What happened at this point in time holds a significance that can never be dismissed.  Over the years, the followers of Jesus came to understand that they had been visited in the flesh by the very person of God incarnate in the life, death and resurrection  of the man Jesus.

In fact, Jesus took on the role of giving himself up to death in order to open the doors of each person to know their own humanity.  To hold on to the meaning of life and death as the ultimate gift of the one who has loved us into existence, created all of us for the purposes of the God of Creation.

It was as if the voice of God was in our midst in the person of Jesus and not recognized.

I look at the sky at night and wonder about the vastness of the universe.  The vastness and the silence of that which lies beyond us as we live on our island home.  It is beyond my imagination and can only begin to wonder at the imagination of the God who has created all that we know and do not know.

And this same creator came to our island home in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Unbelievable.

And it is unbelievable for so many.

Some of you are old enough to remember the series of moon shots that put our astronauts on the moon.  I was here at Grace Memorial on a Christmas Eve in 1968 when an Apollo Mission was to circle the moon without landing.  It had to go around the dark side of the moon and was out of communication for some time.  We all waited breathlessly for its reappearance.  And then we heard a crackling voice, “Hello Houston”.  We can see you—our tiny, distant, teeming, planet filled with people.  A voice in the vastness of space coming to us and coming back to us.  To me, it was symbolic of God’s reaching out from the vastness of the universe to open for us the way of life, the light of the world, the meaning of our individual and God given freedom to chose life or death, good or evil.

Jesus died to give us so much.

To be encircled by his arms that are outstretched on the cross.  Outstretched to include all of suffering humanity in its embrace.

His words:  Father Forgive them for they know not what they do.

Forgiveness at the time of death.

Out of the vastness of the universe – the silence of the universe.

The word became flesh and was crucified.

And the word continues in the flesh of each of us gathered.  To know our significance in a world more willing to crucify than to embrace the love of God.  We all face into that love and offer it to others.  To bring light out of darkness.  Life out of death.

Fourth Sunday of Advent by The Rev. Richard Toll

Lessons:

Micah 5:2-5a

Hebrews 10:5-10

Luke 1:39-45

Canticle 15

 

In the Gospel of Luke, we hear today that Mary has just received the news from the Angel Gabriel that she is the favored one of God and is to give birth to Jesus,  This news is received in Nazareth where Mary lives.  Nazareth in the 1st century was a very small village.  A town of probably no more than 200-300 people.  There is a well in downtown Nazareth today known as Mary’s Well and is in an Orthodox church.  This is considered by many to be the site of the Annunciation.

First century Nazareth was in the bottom of a bowl.  Today’s Nazareth is built up on the sides of the bowl and extends in directions over the top of the bowl.  Today the center of Nazareth is dominated by the modern Basilica of the Annunciation.  It is a Latin Catholic worship space honoring Mary and the Holy Family.  Art work throughout the Basilica is from countries throughout the world that honor Mary as the Mother of Jesus.

At the center of the Basilica is the primary worship space including an excavation of a 1st century home that is thought to be the home of the Holy Family.  I was privileged to be at the Basilica this past month with a group of 28 people from 5 countries: 16 from the US. 5 from Sweden, 3 from the UK, 3 from Canada and 1 from France.

I left the Basilica and went to the monastery of the Sisters of Nazareth, a block away, which built a school for young people in Nazareth in the 1880’s.  While the foundation was being built, a worker fell into a hole that turned out to be a cave used for worship by the early church in the 4th century.  It also contained the grave of a bishop from the 4th century.  A church was built next to the cave to honor the Holy Family at the site of a 1st century house with 3 rolling stone tombs under the house.  So it was an early site for Pilgrims to come.  Later, in the 12thcentury, it was added to by a crusader church as a Pilgrim site.  It felt very authentic.  It is not a place for tourists so I had to get special permission to see it.  Which home at the Basilica or the Sisters of Nazareth might be authentic does not matter.  Most Holy sites have more than one place designated.  Both homes are 1st century so one can imagine the interconnectedness of a small village and know that people knew each other well.

But the story today moves to Bethlehem about 120 miles away, down through the Jordan Valley where Elizabeth is in the midst of her pregnancy with John the Baptist.  Bethlehem was another small village of 100 – 200 people on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  We know the story of no room at the inn and the birth of Jesus in a stable.  The birth of Jesus has been honored since the 4th century in the Church of the Nativity as the birthplace of Jesus.  It was probably honored in the setting before the 4th century but no churches were allowed to be built between the 1st and 4th century.  I was privileged to also be there last month.

 

BETHLEHEM

I made my 1st visit to Bethlehem in 1983.  I was with a pilgrimage group from St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle.  I was Canon Pastor there at the time.  I look back on that visit as one of the real turning points in my life.  My life and ministry was changed.  I have been back to the Holy Land over 30 times with pilgrimages, studied at our Cathedral of St. George’s, Sabeel International conferences, parish groups, Episcopal Peace Fellowship and witness trips.

And it is sad to say that 87% of the Bethlehem’s homes, orchards, and olive groves I visited in 1983 have been confiscated for illegal settlements, the separation wall, military checkpoints and bypass roads.  The reality of the region is very different than what we would like it to be.  In fact, the reality is that many Christians have left and few remain in Bethlehem.

Those who remain are the people I want to tell you about.  A month ago, I attended an Orthodox Church in Bethlehem (actually Beit Jala next to Bethlehem) by the name of St. Nicholas – a name appropriate for the season.  The Orthodox service was simply gorgeous and so very meaningful.  It’s important to understand the Eastern rites of worship and appreciate them.  Remember that at least 1/3 of  Christians throughout the world are Orthodox Christians and use the Rites of the Ancient Eastern Rituals; throughout Eastern Europe, Russia, Greece, Middle East and parts of Africa.

For 2 ½ hours the complete service was sung and chanted in Arabic.  Led by a group 0f 30 in the choir.  Children were crawling around, people were reverencing icons in the church, several processions took place with children in wheelchairs leading the processions.

I was with my friend, Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Anglican Priest from Nazareth that I have known and worked with for over 50 years.  He would let me know what was happening in the liturgy.  For instance – when the Nicene Creed was being intoned in Arabic, rejoicing in the Life of Christ, old people, young people, hundreds of people, music, singing, precessions, beautiful colors and banners, healing prayers during the Eucharist.  A life giving service.  A community gathered to celebrate the Eucharist and to praise the One who gives life to all of us.  But, especially as He came to us as one of us.  Born to live.  Born to die.  The word made flesh.

People of faith.

People of hope in the midst of despair.

The Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem are very proud of their heritage of 2,000 years.  Palestinians claim their heritage as part of Pentecost because Arabs were a part of the story of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles.

I have been pleased to get to know people from Bethlehem.  To hear their stories as they attempt to remain in their homes and businesses under very difficult circumstances.  They are Orthodox Christians, Latin or Roman Catholic Christians, Protestant Christians (mainly Anglican and Lutheran) and they all consider their roots going back to the 1st century.    A proud, generous, dedicated and faithful people who take their responsibility seriously as part of the Christian faith, in the place where Jesus was born.

As we rejoice in this Christmas season, let us remember our companions along the way in Bethlehem.

Amen.

Third Sunday of Advent by The Rev. Richard Toll

Lessons:

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Canticle 9

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:7-18

 

The desert is a very special and unique setting and deserts are found in various places throughout the world.  But the desert I want to speak to today incorporates the area from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea and the surrounding area of the Jordon River on both sides.  On one side is the West Bank of the Palestinian Occupied Territories and on the other is Jordon.  The desert begins outside of Jerusalem and drops 1,400 feet below sea level to Jericho and the Dead Sea, the lowest point in the entire world.  The struggle to survive in this isolated, austere, desert is very real.

It was in this desert that people flocked by the thousands to hear a man by the name of John who was calling people to repentance.  He would gather people on the banks of the Jordan.  He must have been a fireball because apparently people came from all over to hear him and then be baptized by him in the River Jordon.

“What do we do?” they would ask.  John responded with good biblical understanding.  “People in need – share your cloths, share your food, don’t cheat on the job.  Soldiers, do not torture.  Do not abuse”.  John said, “I baptize – but another is coming.  He will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”

There is little doubt in my mind that John was a strong influence on Jesus.  Jesus listened to John.  Jesus was a student of John.  Jesus was baptized by John.  Jesus admired John.

The Judean desert is a place of silence, isolation.  The silence and isolation can be overwhelming.  John was a voice crying in the wilderness.

I had a unique experience a year and a half ago.  I went to a funeral of a priest friend in North Carolina.  He had been my college chaplain at Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas in the 1950’s.  He had prepared Elaine and I for marriage.

While I was in Durham, North Carolina, another friend of mine invited me to a special event he was presenting at the University of North Carolina.  The special presentation was about I-C-E – Ice.  I went to the presentation at the university and found it to be fascinating and wonderful.  Quite different from anything I had ever experienced.

First of all there was a video presentation portraying the Arctic Region in all of it’s starkness, isolation, cold and ice was everywhere.  Penguins were a part of the video and showed them living in the midst of the cold and isolation.

Then my friend showed how microphones had recorded the sounds of a glacier in its’ movement, its’ cracking and breaking up deep within an ice cave.  The sounds were like music and an eight person orchestra accompanied the video, the sounds of the ice cave.  Then two ballet dancers joined in.  The visual of the ice mountains, the penguins, the dancers, the sounds of the ice cave as the ice  cracked, moved, dripped, the sounds of the orchestra as it played along with the ice sounds, played while the ballet dancers mimicked the penguins.  All of this came together in a powerful way through sight and sound.

And, without words.

It reminded me of the question I heard in my high school days, “If a tree falls in the forest is there any sound?  If no one is there to hear it, is there any sound?”  And I reflected at the time about people who had offered me the gift of music for my own life.  My high school choir director, my college choir director, the time I spent as a radio announcer in college playing music over the air.  The music in the parishes I served.  The story of ice is the story of cold, silence, isolation.  It was out of the cold, silent, isolation, the ice cave, the dancers, the listening to the orchestra, the penguins, that I knew the depths of ice and cold within myself and each of us. And yet somehow there was music being created from the isolation.  How isolated we can be from ourselves and each other.

Back to the desert:

The image of the desert is a story of heat, isolation, silence.  A setting where survival is not easy and at times impossible.  And yet the three great religions of the world came out of the desert.  Out of the wilderness.

The Old Testament – right out of Egypt and the Sinai Desert.

The New Testament – right out of the Judean Desert.

The People of Islam – right out of the desert of the Arabian Peninsula.

Our very roots come out of the isolation, silence and heat of the desert.  John proclaimed the Good News that the One who would follow him was greater and would baptize with the Holy Spirit.  Out of our own isolation, cold, heat, silence comes the relationship with the God of Creation…..comes the relationship in community that helps us to remove our isolation from one another.

And we discover our relationship to the God in Creation…discovered in a birth at a stable in Bethlehem….discovered on a cross at Golgotha…discovered in the Resurrection as we experience the Living Presence of Christ.

Amen.