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Note: I preached this sermon on June 30, 2019 at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, MD. This was Pride Weekend there, and the parish celebrated Pride Weekend for the first time–participating on Saturday in the Pride Parade in Annapolis. The Rev. Jessica Sexton, Associate Rector, invited me, and I am grateful for her hospitality and welcome, as all who were there.

Gospel:  Luke 9:51-62

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Looking-BAck

I invite you back in time for a few minutes. It is 2003. Gene Robinson has been duly elected as Bishop Coadjutor of the Diocese of New Hampshire. At General Convention that year, he is approved by both the House of Deputies and House of Bishops. A firestorm erupts. Theologically conservative Episcopalians abandon the Episcopal Church. Form the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Align themselves with bishops outside the Episcopal Church in America. Lawyers line up. Congregations—and families—split. Priests are defrocked. Ugliness ensues on all sides. Jesus weeps.

Gene RobinsonOn the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the rector of a certain parish is consecrated as Bishop of the Diocese of Easton at the end of January, 2003. Both he and his former Associate—still at the parish—must deal with the fall-out after General Convention, with people spewing hate and division in diocesan forums or parish gatherings.

I was that Associate. Although many folks knew that I had a partner—who was living mostly in her Salisbury home—we had never been public about our relationship—largely because my bishop would not have ordained me in 1999 had I been publicly out. But after General Convention 2003, all bets were off.

Basically, I got kicked out of the closet by people who had never had a conversation with me about this. Suddenly, my path got very rocky, dark, and narrow. I obeyed my instincts. I did not stand on a soap box, but I did not lie. I clung to my prayer life and to my deeply supportive family and friends—including the loving support of my former mother-in-law. At some point, Pat and I were having our nightly telephone conversation, and she asked, “How are you doing this? I cannot imagine how you are doing this.”

Morning coffee lightI replied, “Well, every morning I get up. I have my quiet time with my Bible and my prayers. Then I put on my make-up and high heels, and go out there and do what I have been called to do: to preach the gospel.” I continued, “You know, everybody seems to think that following Jesus is a piece of cake. It is not. We are called to pick up a cross and follow Jesus. We forget that. So every day, I guess I’m just going to pick up my cross and do that. Jesus calls us to a narrow way. And I’m with him. That’s all I know how to do.”

So that is what I did. The way was not easy. People were not always kind. Yet like many others in challenging situations, I found out who my friends were—and are. My faith was deepened and strengthened in the crucible of discipleship.  And by 2007, when I interviewed for St. Philip’s in Laurel, they knew about Pat, welcomed her warmly, and over the years, they say to me, “We love Pat.” Or. . . “Where’s Pat?” Pat is an inextricable part of my ministry and my life, and I am so grateful.

Wedding CakeThree years ago on New Year’s Eve, after thirty years together, we were finally able to be legally married in a quiet, small ceremony at the St. Philip’s altar—still decorated with Christmas poinsettias!  God is good. All the time. Even on narrow roads that demand costly discipleship.

In today’s gospel, Jesus of Nazareth reminds us of costly discipleship. After three years of walking the way with him, Jesus’ disciples still do not fully understand what is happening. My guess is that as Jesus heads for the final time to Jerusalem, they know something is up—something that makes them uneasy. I doubt they could have imagined that they would end up betraying or abandoning the Master, leaving him to hang alone on a cross with only faithful women watching. Yet I suspect they are on edge and anxious—just as all people are when they sense that a comfortable system is teetering on the edge of massive change. As one theologian has noted about this passage, “A sense of purpose, immediacy, and danger frames this passage.”[1] There is no getting around that.  By the way in which Jesus describes how one follows him, you have no illusions that you’re going to get a comfortable home with a comfortable bed, or a predictable, comfortable routine.  No, none of that, Jesus says. No comfort food here. No place to call home. No place really to rest well. No possessions, other than what’s on your back. If you’re lucky, you get a cloak that you wear during the day, then wrap yourself in at night as you sleep beside a campfire near the road.

blackjesusFoxes may have holes. Birds may have nests. Yet if you travel with Jesus, get ready to be homeless. If somebody in your family has died, and you are overwhelmed with responsibilities around the burial, Jesus will advise you to leave behind the “swarm of details and personal confusion”[2] into which the death of a loved one throws you. Instead, Jesus invites you to a whole new way of life now.

If you say you want to follow Jesus, while looking back at the past, he may well turn to you and say, “You can’t keep looking back, baby. If you keep looking back, you cannot possibly look ahead, toward the horizon. Where are your priorities?  Are you determined to follow me? Because I require obedience, sacrifice, singleness of mind and heart.”  Or as a certain president—Abraham Lincoln—would say nineteen centuries later: “I walk slowly, but I never walk backwards.”

No looking back. No walking back to the old life. Luke’s Jesus wants us to see and to hear—with our heads and our hearts—the difficult truth. “Discipleship is costly, not cozy and comfortable. The journey to Jerusalem is not a vacation. It is a vocation, and a costly one at that.”[3]  More to the point, this vocation is not just for people wearing white collars around their necks. If you are a lay person and thought you got off easy, I am sorry to disappoint you. Have you been baptized? (If not, I’ll bet we could take care of that today in this very church!) If the answer is yes, I will bet a lot of money that God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, has given you particular gifts and skills. Yes, you can choose to use those in secular ways and no doubt you do.

Cross on Good Friday BWYet Jesus may be standing in front of you on this hot summer day in 2019, asking you to pick up your cross—your cross, not somebody’s else, but your cross—and follow him.

The way to Jerusalem will not be broad. At some point, if you are serious and determined to follow Jesus of Nazareth, you will look around and say, “Where is everybody?  I thought there were lots of Christians in America. But I don’t see many on this road.”  You won’t see many, because the truth is that too many Christians are busy getting way too comfortable, being part of the status quo. Comfortable Christians are of limited use to a prophetic carpenter whose face has turned away from everything except from God’s vision for the world. Jesus fearlessly speaks Truth to power. Jesus is not a stupid man. He knows full well where speaking Truth to power will get him. Not to a comfortable life. Not to a comfortable home with a comfortable bed with comfort food. It will get him to the hard wood of a cross.

Yet Jesus trusts God, who has sent him to this world to be the most perfect example of love we have ever known. Death will not win. As the apostle Paul has written in 1 Corinthians, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”[4]  Even on his way to death, Jesus has faith that life will trump death. Always. In every situation, whether that is personal, political,  or corporate realms. God wins. God’s love wins. Always. Still.

Wrap-Gods-Love-At the last, God’s love opens everything in Life. It is this kind of fierce, strong, determined love—love forged in the white-hot crucible of discipleship—that will transform you and me so completely that we can leave our selfish, self-centered, “me-first” or “me-only” lives in order to walk that road with Jesus. Totally transformed, we look ahead to the horizon. With Jesus, we walk slowly but never backwards. We never again ask “What would Jesus do?” Instead, we know.

We will do what Jesus did: widen our circles to include folks of all kinds. Stand up for the oppressed and marginalized. Love all of God’s children.

I do not believe Jesus has ever separated people by their race, color, or nationality. Jesus loves us, no matter how much money we earn, or how little. No matter how young or old. No matter what political party. Jesus loves straight people, GLBTQ people, non-binary people, single people, married people, divorced people. Jesus accepts and loves all people. And why would he not? God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—that sacred mystery of Divine Community—has created each one of us. Each individual. In each person’s DNA, God put a tiny bit of Godself. The Imago Dei. The image of God.

imago-dei

Maybe what God really wants from each of us is to find that bit of God’s image inside us, then to reflect God’s love—back to God and out to God’s people.  So on this day when this parish courageously stretches itself  to expand your images of God’s amazing and diverse love, don’t be afraid to follow Jesus who loves each one of us as if there were only one of us.

Go ahead. Pick up your cross. Walk slowly forward with Jesus. The road will be narrow. It will not be crowded. Yet if you choose to walk with Jesus of Nazareth, I promise you that the journey will be worth it. The journey with the Christ will transform your life. Then, the overwhelming, overflowing, amazing love of Christ—in you, and through you—will  help transform the world.

God’s kingdom needs that kind of love. God knows this world needs that kind of amazing love.  Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] Carol Howard Merritt, in “Pastoral Perspective on Luke 9:51-62” in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Vol. 1, Cynthia A. Jarvis & E. Elizabeth Johnson, Editors, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 278.

[2] Ibid., 282.

[3] Idem. Mitties McDonald Dechamplain in “Homiletical Perspective on Luke 9:51-62” in Feasting on the Gospels. . . 283.

[4] 1 Corinthians 15:26.

All images accessed at Google images except for photo of candles, icon & miniature cairn; photo of cross on Good Friday at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Laurel, MD; and wedding cake. Those three taken by McJilton.

Characters of the Bible Series:  Sarah & Hagar

Readings:  Genesis 16:1-16 & Genesis 21:1-12

Abraham_89The disclaimer this morning: we cannot cover the patriarch Abraham’s story within the span of one sermon. If we tried, we would still be here at 6:00 tonight. Abram’s story begins in Genesis eleven and continues for a number of chapters. My suggestion is that you do some reading on your own—and I have put a bibliography here near the font if you want to follow up. One notable book is Bruce Feiler’s Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths—a book some of you will remember, we have discussed at a Sunday morning book study.

This morning, we will reflect on a tiny bit of that story, focusing on the God who sees me. The God who calls me by name.

The key women in Abraham’s life are Sarah and Hagar. Abraham has been married to Sarah a long time. During an ill-fated sojourn in Egypt, it seems that Abraham acquired at least one slave woman—Hagar. Life goes along just fine for a while—except. . .no children. God has promised Abraham a son—in fact, God tells Abraham that he will have more descendants than stars in the night sky. But thus far, no children. Now Abraham is eighty-six, and Sarah is seventy-seven.

Sarah is not happy with God’s timetable. So Sarah takes matters into her own hands. She has an Egyptian slave woman—a person Sarah refers to as “my servant.” Hagar is an African woman. A slave. Always destined to be an outsider in Abraham’s home. Sarah tells Abraham, “The Lord has kept me from giving birth. So go to my servant. Maybe she will provide me with children.” (Note—Sarah never calls Hagar by her name, thus de-humanizing her. Also, because Sarah owns Hagar, any child Hagar bears will legally belong to Abraham and Sarah.)

Once Hagar is pregnant, trouble rears its head. Hagar realizes that now that she is to bear Abraham’s child, she has gained status. The relationship between the two women gets ugly. Now, instead of blaming God for her lack of fertility, Sarah blames Abraham.

abrahamsarah“This harassment is your fault. I allowed you to embrace my servant, but when she realized she was pregnant, I lost her respect.” Then Sarah flings back to Abraham, “Let the Lord decide.” Poor Abraham. He cannot win this one. Yet instead of going back to God, Abraham throws it back to Sarah.

“She’s your servant. Do whatever you want with her.” Sarah does. Sarah treats Hagar harshlyabusively. The Hebrew words used here are the same words that will be used later in Exodus for the way in which Pharoah abuses the Hebrews. So Hagar runs away. She would rather live in that harsh desert environment than to live in that tent and endure abuse from Sarah.

Yet God intervenes. God sends an angelic messenger to Hagar in the desert. The angel sees her. Calls her by name: “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

Hagar says she’s running away. The angel stops her. Tells her to go back to her owners. But the angelic messenger does an amazing thing. After seeing Hagar and calling her out by name—in itself a significant thing—God’s angel gives Hagar the same promise that God once gave to Abraham.

The angel says, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.” Then the angel tells Hagar she will have a son. She is to name him Ishmael—which means “God hears.”  Ishmael will grow up to live in the desert, apart from other tribes, literally “to the east of his brothers” or “against his brothers.” But the significant underlying message is that Ishmael will live freely. The promise to the slave woman is that her son will not have to live as an oppressed slave to anyone—least of all to Abraham and Sarah.

Hager

Now, Hagar does something that no other woman in the Hebrew scriptures does. She names God. “You are El-Roi,” she says to God.  That is translated, “You are the God who sees” or “You are the God whom I’ve seen.” (Note: The Hebrew is unclear here.) Hagar is amazed. She has not only seen God, but talked to God—and lived to tell it. (Ancient people believe that when a human being encounters divinity, they do not live to tell it.)

Strengthened by this divine encounter and by a God who has heard and seen her, Hagar returns to Sarah. In due time, she gives birth to Ishmael. Fast forward thirteen years. Now Abraham is ninety-nine years old and Sarah is ninety. Ishmael is about thirteen. Still, Sarah is barren. Yet God still promises Abraham a son—through Sarah. And next year, miraculously, Isaac is born.

Some backstory here: When God told Abraham he will have a son, Sarah laughed in disbelief.  But finally, the promise of a child is fulfilled, and Isaac’s name means “he laughs.” The sounds of childish laughter fill their tents. Yet trouble rears its ugly head again.

Once Isaac is weaned—perhaps around three years of age—Abraham and Sarah throw a big party.  After all, in ancient times, children often died before they were weaned. So the fact that Isaac has survived in a primitive time is, in itself, miraculous. At the huge banquet, there is food, celebration, laughter. But Sarah sees Ishmael playing and laughing with Isaac. She stops short. She remembers.

Legally, Ishmael is the firstborn heir of Abraham. It is he who will inherit most of the father’s property and inheritance. So once again, Sarah goes to Abraham. “Send this servant away with her son! [Note: again, Sarah de-humanizes both Hagar and Ishmael by not naming them.] This servant’s son won’t share the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

Abraham is very upset. After all, Ishmael is his son, and for thirteen years, his only son. But to appease Sarah, he gets up the next morning, gives Hagar some bread and water, and makes her leave with Ishmael. One must read between the lines in this story. You know Abraham is upset, but his actions are silent. You can feel his anguish, but there is no dialogue. Now the Hebrew in this section is unclear. For example, the translation we read today is this: “He put the boy in her shoulder sling and sent her away.” But you put babies in shoulder slings. By the time Isaac is weaned, Ishmael must be about sixteen years old. Yet we can’t be distracted by difficult translations. The point is that Abraham is distressed. He is torn between what he wants to do and what he must do. Yet the good news here is that God promises Abraham that Ishmael and Hagar will not only survive out there in the desert, but Ishmael will also have thousands of descendants. So the divine promise, officially fulfilled through Isaac, will also be multiplied through his older brother.

Hagar and her son wander in the desert. When the water in the flask runs out, Hagar leaves Ishmael under a small desert bush. She cannot bear to hear her son’s weak cries as he dies of hunger and thirst. Yet once again, El-Roi hears and sees Hagar. “Hagar! What’s wrong? Don’t be afraid! God has heard the boy’s cries over there. Get up, pick up the boy, and take him by the hand because I will make of him a great nation.”

water wellThe God who sees, the God who hears, once again provides. God reveals a well of water in the barren, dry wilderness. Hagar fills the water flask, gives her son a drink, and he lives. Now look at the final words. They are very telling, if you read closely. God may have “elected” Isaac, yet God “treasures the non-elected: Ishmael.”[1] God remains, abides, stays, with Ishmael. Ishmael grows up. He lives in the desert—a free man, not a slave. He becomes an expert archer, which means he can feed himself. He lives in the Paran Desert—which is significant, because that is a coastal area that borders the Red Sea, across the sea from Egypt. More significantly, this is where Mecca is today (remember that today’s Muslims consider Ishmael to be their fore-father, not Isaac.) His mother returns to Egypt—her home country—to find a wife for him—thus doing the duty of a father.

Hagar has seen God and named God. God has seen Hagar and named Hagar. God may have talked about Sarah, but God never talks directly to Sarah. God never talks about Hagar. God talks to Hagar. This fierce, strong slave woman is the stuff of legend and an instrument of God’s promise fulfilled—even if it is God’s promise fulfilled through imperfect human beings.

What does this biblical story have to do with us? The truth is that nothing has changed about human beings and their character. Abraham, Sarah and Hagar behaved like people do today. Mainstream folks still define the rights and privileges of others. We human beings still dehumanize others—we call them “those people,” for example. It’s easier to brutalize, imprison, marginalize people if you give them a number, clump them into a race of people, or assume that “those people” are a monolithic group. So in the 21st century—as in ancient times—we are very familiar with mis-use of power and privilege. We shame. We blame. We de-personalize others, forgetting that in our baptismal covenant, we have promised to “respect the dignity of every human being.” Not some human beings. Every human being.

Yet the truth is that no matter what the era, God sees and hears each human being. And just as in the story of Sarah and Hagar, God continues to “work through complex situations and imperfect human beings on behalf of the divine purpose.”[2] God has a divine purpose. Too often, you and I think either that we know what God’s purpose is—without consulting God—or we think that we do not have “the right stuff” to help God fulfill God’s divine purpose. Who? Me? I can’t do that. I’m just. . . .(fill in the blank here.)” I’m too shy. I have too many issues. I’m too busy. I’m not good enough. . .Whatever excuses human beings come up with.

Meanwhile, God waits. God says, “Hello? Hello? I gave you the gift of listening. I gave you a gift for teaching. I gave you a gift of singing (or playing an instrument.) I gave you a head for numbers. I gave you a gift of hospitality. I see you, says God. Do you see me? Do you hear my voice?

Not one of us is perfect. We are flawed, broken, imperfect human beings. Regardless of that, the God who made heaven and earth created each one of us, knows each of us, and has given us amazing gifts and skills. Maybe our mission—should we decide to accept it— is to open our ears to hear God or open our eyes to see God in our lives. To ask “What does God want me to see? To hear? How can I discover what God’s purpose is for my life? What small bit does God want me to do in order to share God’s amazing love with others who so need that love?”

El-Roi, the God who sees you, waits patiently for you today. The God who hears you waits patiently for you today. Will you open your ears? Your eyes? Your heart? God sees. God hears. God waits. For each one of us. For all of us. Amen. 

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. I, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 489

[2] Ibid., 489.

night sky

A Bibliography about Abraham and family

https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism/history/abraham_1.shtml

The book of Genesis, beginning with Chapter 11. [Helpful to have a study Bible, like the Oxford Annotated Study Bible or Harper’s Annotated Study Bible. If you need to borrow one, we probably have a couple available at St. P’s.]

Further reading

Genesis, Robert Alter (Ed), pub: W W Norton (1998)

Voices from Genesis: Guiding us through the stages of life, Norman J Cohen, pub: Jewish Lights Publishing (1999)

Abraham: A journey to the heart of three faiths, Bruce Feiler, pub: William Morrow and Company (2002)

The Pentateuch – A story of beginnings, Paula Gooder, pub: Continuum International Publishing (2000)

The Oxford Guide to People and Places of the Bible, Bruce Metzger; George L Collard; Michael Coogan (Eds), pub: Oxford University Press (2001)

Additional Resources:

The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney’s book A Womanist Midrash.

https://smile.amazon.com/Womanist-Midrash-Reintroduction-Women-Throne/dp/066423903X/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=womanist+midrash&qid=1561244217&s=gateway&sr=8-1

Also, check out an interview with Dr. Gafney and Pete Enns. Here is the link:

https://peteenns.com/womanist-midrash-with-wil-gafney/

NOTE: All photographs and pictures accessed through Google images.

Sarah and Hagar

Egyptian Desert

Sarah and Hagar are intricately woven into the Abrahamic faiths through their key roles. Sarah is seen as the mother of what will later be called Judaism, and Hagar is the mother of Ishmaelites (later: Muslims). They are both wives of the patriarch Abraham (or Abram, as he was known at first), and as you will see on Sunday, things get what you might call “complicated.”

Sometimes we wonder if holy scripture has anything to do with our lives. Then we read a story like that of Abram, God’s promise to an old man who has no heirs, a barren old wife, and then. . .a story evolving that rivals any good soap opera!  If we read the accounts of Abram and Sarai–their original names when first we meet them–we see them as refugees from their home country, there is rivalry between Abram and his nephew Lot, there is a journey to Egypt, where the Egyptian ruler decides he wants Sarai, and Abram tells her “Tell him you’re my sister,” because otherwise, the ruler will probably kill Abram. Well, Abram and Sarai ARE distant kin within a tribe, so on one level, this isn’t exactly a lie. But it isn’t the truth either. And when the Pharoah begins to experience bad luck, he connects it to Sarai, confronts Abram, and when he learns the truth, he throws both Abram and Sarai out of the country.

night sky

Ultimately, we get to God’s promise to Abram to give him descendant who will be as numerous as stars in the sky. Well, that seemed a bit impossible. Abraham (re-named by God) is in his eighties, Sarah isn’t much younger, and. . .still God promises.

When God doesn’t come through in what Sarah considers a timely fashion, she takes matters into her own hands. Thus begins the passages we will reflect upon this coming Sunday. I am copying the verses here, so that if you want to read the two key passages ahead of time (and pay attention to the various translations of words), you can.

Genesis 16:1-16

Hagar and the Ishmaelites’ origins

Sarai, Abram’s wife, had not been able to have children. Since she had an Egyptian servant named Hagar, Sarai said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from giving birth, so go to my servant. Maybe she will provide me with children.” Abram did just as Sarai said. After Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Abram’s wife Sarai took her Egyptian servant Hagar and gave her to her husband Abram as his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she became pregnant. But when she realized that she was pregnant, she no longer respected her mistress. Sarai said to Abram, “This harassment is your fault. I allowed you to embrace my servant, but when she realized she was pregnant, I lost her respect. Let the Lord decide who is right, you or me.”

Abram said to Sarai, “Since she’s your servant, do whatever you wish to her.” So Sarai treated her harshly, and she ran away from Sarai. The Lord’s messenger found Hagar at a spring in the desert, the spring on the road to Shur, and said, “Hagar! Sarai’s servant! Where did you come from and where are you going?”

She said, “From Sarai my mistress. I’m running away.”

The Lord’s messenger said to her, “Go back to your mistress. Put up with her harsh treatment of you.” The Lord’s messenger also said to her,

“I will give you many children,
so many they can’t be counted!”

The Lord’s messenger said to her,

“You are now pregnant and will give birth to a son.
You will name him Ishmael[a]
because the Lord has heard about your harsh treatment.
He will be a wild mule of a man;
he will fight everyone, and they will fight him.
He will live at odds with all his relatives.”[b]

Hagar named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El Roi”[c] because she said, “Can I still see after he saw me?”[d] Therefore, that well is called Beer-lahai-roi;[e]it’s the well between Kadesh and Bered. Hagar gave birth to a son for Abram, and Abram named him Ishmael. Abram was 86 years old when Hagar gave birth to Ishmael for Abram.

Footnotes:

  1. Genesis 16:11Or God hears
  2. Genesis 16:12Or He will reside near all his relatives.
  3. Genesis 16:13Or God who sees or God whom I’ve seen
  4. Genesis 16:13Heb uncertain; or Have I really seen God and survived?
  5. Genesis 16:14Or the Well of the Living One who sees me or whom I’ve seen

Genesis 21:1-21

 Isaac’s birth

The Lord was attentive to Sarah just as he had said, and the Lord carried out just what he had promised her. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son for Abraham when he was old, at the very time God had told him. Abraham named his son—the one Sarah bore him—Isaac.[a] Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old just as God had commanded him. Abraham was 100 years old when his son Isaac was born. Sarah said, “God has given me laughter. Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me.”[b] She said, “Who could have told Abraham that Sarah would nurse sons? But now I’ve given birth to a son when he was old.

Hagar and Ishmael evicted

The boy Isaac grew and stopped nursing. On the day he stopped nursing, Abraham prepared a huge banquet. Sarah saw Hagar’s son laughing, the one Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham. So she said to Abraham, “Send this servant away with her son! This servant’s son won’t share the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

This upset Abraham terribly because the boy was his son. God said to Abraham, “Don’t be upset about the boy and your servant. Do everything Sarah tells you to do because your descendants will be traced through Isaac. But I will make of your servant’s son a great nation too, because he is also your descendant.” Abraham got up early in the morning, took some bread and a flask of water, and gave it to Hagar. He put the boy in her shoulder sling and sent her away.

She left and wandered through the desert near Beer-sheba. Finally the water in the flask ran out, and she put the boy down under one of the desert shrubs. She walked away from him about as far as a bow shot and sat down, telling herself, I can’t bear to see the boy die. She sat at a distance, cried out in grief, and wept.

God heard the boy’s cries, and God’s messenger called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “Hagar! What’s wrong? Don’t be afraid. God has heard the boy’s cries over there. Get up, pick up the boy, and take him by the hand because I will make of him a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well. She went over, filled the water flask, and gave the boy a drink. God remained with the boy; he grew up, lived in the desert, and became an expert archer. He lived in the Paran desert, and his mother found him an Egyptian wife.

. . . . . . . . . .

Cup of CoffeeJoin us this Sunday, June 23 at St. Philip’s in Laurel, either for 8:00 or 10:15 services. Robert’s Bible study is at 9:00. 522 Main Street–corner of 6th & Main in Laurel, MD. Free parking! Hot coffee! Diverse and friendly folks!

Luke 4:1-13

Lent I, 2019

Rembrandt_Temptation_of_Christ_700

Throughout the centuries, many people have attempted to show today’s gospel in art. The artist “Rembrandt drew several depictions of the devil tempting Jesus. In one of them the two look like friends. They appear to be ambling down a country road, deep in conversation. The devil is a half step behind Jesus. His head is skeletal, but there is an urgent, deeply human look on his face. He is reasoning with Jesus, not menacing him. One of his wings is thrown over Jesus’ shoulder in an almost familial manner. He leans in, mouth open slightly, eyes on Christ, speaking quietly, a heavy stone in his hands. He holds the stone out as if it were a gift. ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’”[1]

In this sketch, Satan does not loom over Jesus like some monster. He looks like someone making a reasonable proposition to his companion on the way. This is, of course, the point. Most of the time, the temptations that face human beings look rational and reasonable. Sometimes, those temptations are not between extreme good and extreme evil, cast in stark contrast. Instead, they are often fuzzy. Shades of gray. Boundaries fluid.

We begin the season of Lent with choices. On the first Sunday of Lent, we begin with choices made in Luke’s gospel by the one in whose name we are baptized, the one we profess to follow: Jesus of Nazareth. John the baptizer has baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. The Holy Spirit has descended on Jesus like a dove. A voice has come from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  All of his life, Jesus of Nazareth has been growing in his understanding of just who he is. On the day of his baptism, his identity is confirmed.

Luke tells us that after Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit at baptism, he is led into the wilderness, where he spends a long time. Scripture says forty days, a phrase used by ancient peoples to mean “a very long time.” Throughout that time, Luke says Jesus is tempted—and “the Greek verb translated ‘to tempt’ in verse two implies hostile intent.”[2]

flatbread            At the end of the time, Jesus is, of course, exhausted and famished. Suddenly the devil appears, offering a big stone. Here, Jesus, if you are who you think you are, you can turn this big old stone into a nice, warm, fresh loaf of bread. Jesus knows his history. He knows that when his people wandered in the desert for forty years—a very long time—God provided manna. Every day. And while manna was certainly not as delicious as homemade flatbread cooked over a hot fire, it provided basic sustenance. When you are starving, you take what’s offered you.

Except. Except that in today’s gospel, Jesus—who must have really considered changing a rock into bread—said no. Instead, he quotes from Deuteronomy—the book that contains three speeches of Moses to the people of Israel just before they enter the Promised Land. Jesus knows his history. Jesus has learned holy scripture since he was a little boy. No, Satan. I know who I am. I am God’s beloved. I will make better choices than doing magic tricks with a rock.

Of course the devil does not give up. The devil never gives up. The devil keeps circling, watching. . .waiting for just the right moment. . .or sauntering down the road with us, his wing thrown casually over our left shoulder as if he’s our best friend. He speaks quietly. Reasonably. You know, you could have power. And if you had the kind of power I offer, you could do some really good things in the world. Don’t you want to make a difference in the world? But if you don’t have any power, hey, you can’t do much.

Many of us have read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is clear that the writer, J.R.R. Tolkien, deeply understood how seductive power—for good or for evil—can have on otherwise reasonable beings. One ring to rule them all. . .

Cate-Blanchett-as-Galadriel            In The Fellowship of the Ring, it takes time, and several significant encounters and events  before Frodo Baggins fully understands the power of the ring he wears around his neck. This ring possesses “a gravitational drag on the character, good or bad, of the sentient beings of Middle-earth.”[3]

Until he really understands the ring’s horrifying power, Frodo either implicitly or explicitly offers the ring to another—to Gandalf, who responds, “Do not tempt me!” (twice) or to Lady Galadriel, the Elf Queen, who responds with bemusement, “You offer it to me freely. I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired this.”

Then we watch as the good and the evil fight within Galadriel until finally, somehow, she summons the inner strength she needs to refuse this awful power. She passes the cosmic test. “I will diminish, and go into the West,” she says.

one ring            The power of this One Ring remains with the Ring Bearer—who is beginning to understand what a lonely road he faces, what a vast, dark wilderness he travels. “I cannot do this alone,” Frodo protests quietly to Galadriel. Galadriel understands power and its heavy burden. She responds, “You are a Ring-bearer, Frodo. To bear a Ring of Power is to be alone. . .This task was appointed to you. And if you do not find a way, no one will.”

Christians might say that Jesus was our ultimate Ring-Bearer.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a devout Anglican Christian. Tolkien was well acquainted with biblical stories, as well as Celtic myths from Ireland, and the larger concepts of Truth. In fact, it is acknowledged that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis who were friends, both used their literary work—well disguised—to teach great Christian truths to millions of unsuspecting readers. (So J.K. Rowling was not the first to disguise Christian truths in fiction!)

Tolkien wrote of temptation in a number of ways, expressed in situations with many characters. The gospel writers did the same—whether it was with Jesus, with Simon Peter, with Judas Iscariot. Jesus passes the ultimate test. Peter fails, when he betrays Jesus, yet he does redeem himself in the end. Judas fails Jesus. He is the first to break that Fellowship. Luke gave us a hint that this will happen: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” A better time. Not chronos time, but kairos time.[4] Forty pieces of silver (a lot of silver. . .) seems to have woven its particular evil spell on Judas.

Whether it is the temptation to use power for selfish reasons (hunger), for power, or for idolatry, Satan smoothly uses distortion and lies to convince Jesus to mis-use who he is. “The devil presents wants as needs, falsehoods as truths, mistrust as faith.”[5] Yet Jesus knows who he is. Jesus refuses to allow power, prestige, or personal gratification to thwart him from living fully into who he is, and what God calls him to do.

It is true that powerful people live in every age—from long before Jesus until today. In our time, we can all name powerful people. Some are movie stars. Some have inherited great wealth. Some hold political power. As one writer has noted, “All around the world, people with no power follow despots in order to get some power, people with some power crave more power, and people with more than their share of power and wealth [cheat], [lie], [conspire], [war], and [bully] to preserve what they have.”[6]

Yet this was not Jesus’ way. His was the way of the cross.   This simple carpenter and rabbi from Nazareth has shown us how to live best. Through his choices, his actions, his life, Jesus has taught us that God’s kind of strength does not equal our human ideas of strength or weakness. Jesus knew who he was. He acted out of that grounded place.

Yet I wonder whether we Christians today are grounded deeply enough, or know enough about our Christian faith to make wise decisions. Do we really know who we are in God? Do we understand that we, too, are God’s beloved children, just as Jesus was?

As we enter into the season of Lent, I invite you to find out more about your faith,   or to deepen your faith. I invite you to join me in working on our spiritual muscles. Many of you work out regularly at gyms, or hike in parks, or do exercise at home. You do this to get stronger, to stay fit, to help yourself stay alert mentally. This takes intention and discipline.

In the same way, I encourage you to work on your spiritual life every day. Every day. Robert and I offer you several ways to do this.

  1. You can come to the Wednesday evening potluck supper and conversations about faith where no question is stupid, and all viewpoints are respected.
  2. You can attend Robert’s 9:00 Sunday morning Adult Forums, to discuss the scriptures of that Sunday.
  3. You can follow the church on our Instagram page or Facebook page or check the parish website every day—where we are following “The Way of Love” with a picture and a reflection.
  4. You can pick up a “Way of Love” calendar today, choosing your own way to live out a particular day. Then share that on your Facebook page, or on your Twitter feed, or on your Instagram page. Who are you in God, anyway? Share your thoughts about that.

https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/way_of_love_in_lent_2019_calendar.pdf

Two thousand years ago, Jesus showed us that the choices we make matter. Our choices reveal who we really are. So do not be fooled by temptations, however subtle. If you stop for a moment and go deep inside yourself, if you draw on who you became the moment you were baptized, if you remember that you have been “sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever,” then that will help you make the right choice.

It won’t be easy. It never is. Yet to make the Christ-like choice will give your soul deep peace. Furthermore, I promise that you will find companions on that narrow road to support you, to challenge you, to love you.

Join this Christian Fellowship. And when you get hungry on the journey, you can share the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven. It is daily. It is eternal. It really is all the nourishment you need. Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] Matt Fitzgerald, “Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels, Luke, Vol. I, Chapters 1-11, Cynthia A. Jarvis & E. Elizabeth Johnson, Editors, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 93.

[2] Alan P. Sherouse, in “Exegetical Perspective” on Luke 4:1-13 in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Vol. 1, Chapters 1-11, Cynthia A. Jarvis & E. Elizabeth Johnson, Editors, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 93.

[3] http://alasnotme.blogspot.com/2016/08/the-last-temptation-of-galadriel.html

[4] Kairos (Ancient Greek: καιρός) is an Ancient Greek word meaning the right, critical, or opportune moment. The ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos (χρόνος) and kairos. The former refers to chronological or sequential time, while the latter signifies a proper or opportune time for action. from www.wikipedia.com.

[5] Kimberly M. Van Driel, in “Homiletical Perspective” on Luke 4:1-13, in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, (Knoxville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 47.

[6] Tom Ehrich, in his “On A Journey” blog, accessed on March 6, 2019. © Morning Walk Media.

Luke 6:27-38

Trivial Pursuit CardsFrom our “Non-Trial Pursuits” Game, these questions: “Who are the members of my community?” and “What responsibility do I have to my community?”

I don’t know about you, but today’s gospel is a collection of directives that draw me up short. Wait, Jesus. What did you say? Love your enemies? Do good to those who hate you? Pray for those who abuse you? It feels like everywhere I turn, I stub my spiritual toe on Jesus’ idealistic, costly demands.

I mean, really, did you get out of bed and come to church this morning, thinking, “I hope I get a real challenge today from the preacher. Like maybe I’ll be asked to love my enemy. Oh, I can’t wait for that.”

Better that you get some teaser like “Five Easy Steps to Love,” or “How to Build a Community that Sparks Joy.” Something like that. Yet that is not what the gospel offers us today. Instead, the gospel challenges us—and big time.

Jesus’ words in Luke follow closely on the heels of his blessings and woes in the Sermon on the Mount—or in Luke’s case, the Sermon on the Plain. Blessed are you. . .woe are you. . . In Matthew, we get the Sermon on the Mount, because Matthew is making connections between Jesus and Moses on Mt. Sinai. In Luke, we get the Sermon on the Plain, because Luke wants to emphasize how often Jesus mixed and mingled with ordinary people. Same location (Mount Tabor), just a different perspective.

Tabor02 Continue Reading »

star of bethlehemFeast of the Epiphany    Isaiah 60:1-6          Matthew 2:1-12

What it is like in the world

It is a time of turmoil and darkness in the world. A puppet holds political power. He was not born to rule, yet somehow he has ended up in charge. Everyone fears his temper, his capricious nature, his cruelty. Hope has been born in a baby on the borders of society, yet the one who rules sits alone: in the dark, without hope. He knows. He knows he does not really belong on a throne. His crown sits uneasily on his head. It would not take much to topple his power.

Continue Reading »

Mission Impossible?

December 7, 2018

mission impossibleYears ago, one of my favorite TV shows was “Mission Impossible.” This show always began with a recording (a tiny reel to reel tape machine!) that outlined a possible mission. Somewhere in that message, the unknown voice said, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is. . . .” and named that mission. At the end, that same voice always told Peter Graves that if he or his team got caught, the officials would disavow knowing anything about the mission. Then the voice said, “This tape will self-destruct in five seconds.” So I got to watch this tiny reel to reel machine go up in smoke every week.

As Christians, we have no record of God telling Jesus about his particular mission. There is no disembodied voice. There is no tape recorder going up in smoke. At times, I have wondered just how-and exactly when-Jesus knew who he was and what he was destined to do. We have four gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry, yet each one has its own perspective, none are what we would term “biographies” and the gospels certainly are not live news accounts like we would see on television. Instead, these accounts were about Love-the kind of unconditional, amazing Love that poured out of, and through, this humble carpenter from Nazareth. He had come to show human beings a better way to live. A way that did not put the emperor first. A way that did not put money first. A way that did not put education first. A way that did not put anything first, except God who created us and sustains us, from our first breath to our final one. Jesus came to show us that our main “mission” is to love God first, and then out of that great love, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.

bush funeralOn Tuesday, as I watched President George H.W. Bush’s funeral at our own Washington National Cathedral, I was struck by an image shared by the Rev. Dr. Russell Levinson (the Bush’s priest and pastor at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston.) For the last hour of the President’s life, Levinson noted that Bush’s dear friend, James Baker, had stood at the foot of the bed and rubbed President Bush’s feet-a gesture that was symbolic of a servant’s gesture, and that of a good friend. When your friend is dying, you want to make him or her as comfortable as you can. You do acts of love, and you don’t do them because someone is likely to mention them at the funeral. You do them because you love. Simple as that.

footwashing1This kind of love, best shown to us by Jesus of Nazareth, is amazing love, isn’t it? Such love is lived out in many ways, yet I think that every time we gather together as a faith community to worship, we get a glimpse of God’s realm. We re-member the Body of Christ, just by coming together to worship. We remember what Jesus did the night before he died, as he broke bread and poured wine and told his disciples “whenever you do this, remember me.” And so we do. We still do.

This is good news. It is, in fact, great news, and it is news worth sharing. This brings me to challenge you, to see if you might have a particular mission.

In the next few weeks, we will gather at St. Philip’s for special Advent or Christmas services. On December 23, we’ll enjoy an old tradition: the service of Advent Lessons & Carols, which is based on a liturgy first done at Kings College, Cambridge, England. Then, as our tradition has become, you have the chance to come with a group of people downstairs to the Wyatt Hall basement, where we will tie long “ropes” of greens together in garlands. Later, those beautiful garlands will be hung in our worship space to make it more beautiful for Christmas.

Chalres Allen Christmas 2015On Christmas Eve, we’ll offer two wonderful experiences of worship. The earlier service is very child and family friendly, and we celebrate the fact that any child-whether long-time parishioner or total stranger-can show up at 4:00 and get a costume to be in the Christmas pageant. Then one of the clergy will narrate the Christmas story while the shepherds and sheep and animals and angels and Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus appear in their proper order. Thus will we tell “the greatest story ever told.” There will be chaos and noise and maybe crying and unexpected things. One never knows. But at the end of that service, we will get to spend a few reflective moments with candles and the singing of “Silent Night.”

The later service will begin with a series of special anthems and seasonal carols at 7:30, and the service will begin at 8:00 p.m. Our adult choir and bell choir will both offer beautiful music, and again, at the end, we’ll get to sing “Silent Night” with candles before we burst out with “Joy to the World.”

CandlelightRobert and I would like to challenge you. To what? We challenge (and invite you) to invite someone to Christmas service worship services. This is the perfect time of year to do that. Yes, we have a lot of introverts in this congregation. Yes, we are Episcopalians. We don’t do that “invite” thing so well in the Episcopal Church. Yet in the past year, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and others have elevated the profile of our wonderful Anglican tradition-first by his preaching at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding, then by the Episcopal funeral service for former First Lady Barbara Bush, and this week, by the State Funeral of President George H.W. Bush at our own Washington National Cathedral.

All you have to do is say “You should come to St. Philip’s with me for ______. We’ll sing special music, and your kids can be in the pageant. What? Yes, it was our own Michael Curry who preached the wedding sermon. Yes, it was at the Episcopal Cathedral where President Bush was celebrated recently. St. Philip’s is a great place. Why don’t you come with me and see for yourself?” Then offer to pick those folks up or to meet them here in the worship space. Tell them you’ll save them a seat, or offer to meet them at the front door, or in the parking lot.

Cards ChristmasIf you need a physical “prop,” we’ll have a stack of cards ready for you this coming Sunday. On this card are pictures from last Christmas Eve services, plus the schedule for this year’s special services. You can hand it to someone and invite them to come with you.

We have an amazing place of worship. Our space is historic. Our family of faith is not so large that people will feel like a number. They will have a name, and we will welcome them. Yet if you don’t invite them, they may never find these things out.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to invite someone to come to church with you in the next three weeks. And this tape will not self-destruct in five seconds.

Tell someone about God’s good news in this place. It is worth telling. It is worth sharing. It is worth celebrating. Blessings, Sheila+

Christmas Worship Services

Jim Rogers and greens

Sunday, December 23

9:00 a.m. (One Service Only):  Advent Lessons & Carols

Service of Advent Lessons & Carols, based on ancient service in Church of England

10:30 a.m. Greening of the Church & Soup luncheon

Bring some homemade soup in a crockpot or sandwiches to share after we are done!

Monday, December 24  Christmas Eve

Lily and Anna Christmas 2015.jpg4:00 p.m.  Children show up in Wyatt Hall to get Christmas pageant costumes

4:30 p.m. Family Friendly Christmas Eve service with Christmas Pageant

7:30 p.m. Seasonal hymns and special choir anthems with Adult & Bell Choirs

8:00 p.m. Choral Festival Candlelight Christmas Eve Service

Front Door Wreaths.jpg

Sunday, December 30

8:00 a.m. Holy Eucharist Rite I

10:15 a.m. Holy Eucharist Rite II

Note: No Sunday School on Dec. 30

Important Note:

Have you ever invited someone to come to church with you? If not, why not do that for some or all of these special Christmas services? No one is ever offended to be asked, and special Christmas services is a perfect time to invite a friend, an office-mate, a work colleague, a neighbor, to join you and your family here at St. Philip’s. Think about what you love most about this faith community, and then extend the chance for someone else to experience, then love it, too.