December 3, 2023 -- Advent 1
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

1 Advemt (Year B)
St. John’s, West Seneca
December 3, 2023

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the LORD Jesus Christ.  Amen.

I have read a number of articles lately lamenting how little we understand Jesus and his teachings. Part of that comes because we are not as acquainted as we should be with what is exactly in the Bible. So, my tradition of taking the first Sunday in Advent to introduce the Gospel for the year, seems on point. It is as good a time as any to see just where Mark’s Gospel will take us this year.

As you know, the weekly lectionary is based on a three-year cycle, highlighting the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.  John does not have a dedicated year, but has portions placed in and through the year of each one.  Last year was Matthew, or year A, and so this year we move on to year B, which is dedicated to Mark.

Mark is most probably the first gospel written, around 70 A.D., when the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. It is the shortest of the gospels and the most urgent.  I always think of that old ad campaign for NIKE when I think of Mark: “JUST DO IT.”   That is exactly what Mark was doing, writing in a hurry, out of breath, because the people he was writing for were in the exact same condition as he was.  It was as if the authorities were out for their blood; and they were on the run.  Yes, Mark was a man in a hurry, and to illustrate that, consider this factoid: Mark uses the word “immediately” some 42 times in those 16 chapters.

Who is the author?  No one knows for sure, and the book itself does not say. Some say that it was the same John Mark who turns up in the book of Acts as one of Paul’s traveling companions.  It could also be that this is the same person who appears at the scene of Jesus’ arrest at Gethsemane as the boy who managed to escape from the soldiers but not without leaving his shirt behind, running away naked and no doubt scared. Mark is the only one who reports that story, and perhaps, just as an artist will put themselves into their paintings; this may be his signature.

His outline is a simple one.
Prelude to Jesus’ ministry: 1: 1-13
The Galilean ministry: 1:14-8:26
The journey to Jerusalem: 8:27-10
The Jerusalem ministry: 11:1-15
Postlude: the empty tomb 16:1-8

Mark has no birth story; there is nothing about how or when Jesus was born. He reports what is most important, and for Mark, a birth story is not. So there is no angel, no Herod, no wise men, and in fact, if we were to celebrate the upcoming holiday based on Mark, well, we wouldn’t.  Mark tells us nothing except that Jesus comes from the town of Nazareth in Galilee. Rather, he quotes Isaiah “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.”

Back to that urgency for a moment. It runs through the entire gospel. The end of the world is near, and people must immediately repent. Mark uses the present tense often, then connects it with that transitional word “immediately.” Jesus is hardly done with one healing or exorcism before he “immediately” rushes off to the next village to perform another.

For Mark, Jesus is the healer and exorcist who will break Satan’s control over humanity. Mark records numerous exorcisms, while, for example, John’s gospel has none. Jesus’s first miracle is the expelling of a demon.

And the demons know who Jesus is. At the first exorcism, the demon cries out Jesus’ identity: “the Holy One of God.” In the story of the Gerasene demoniac, the demons also identify him; you may recall that their name is “legion,” probably a reference to the Roman legions who occupied Palestine.  This is such an important aspect to Mark’s story of Jesus that he commissions the 12 disciples to perform exorcisms as well.  Of course, Jesus himself is accused as being tool of the devil by the teachers of the Torah.

Mark writes for those who already believe rather than those who need things explained, and so, it is who Jesus is, not what he said that is so important to Mark.  Mark says it in the first sentence just so no one will be confused. And Jesus came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” and that is exactly what he did; he died doing it.

But one of Mark’s quirks is the confusion about who Jesus is.  There is this strange inability of his disciples to understand him, and that is true for all of his associates: neighbors, family, the religious leaders.  Mark’s portrayal seems quite negative. However, Mark paints people…warts and all.  When James and John ask who will sit next to Jesus, who on the right and who on the left, it is James and John who ask the question. In Matthew, it is their mother.

For all the fast-paced movement of Mark’s gospel, he is still very descriptive, picking up the little details, really seeing Jesus, perhaps even better than the other evangelists.

  • “He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.” (1:31);  
  • “in the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place.”
  • “So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door…”  (2:2);
  •  “But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion…” (4:37-38);
  • “And the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea…” (5:13);
  • “Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties.”  (6:39-40);
  • “And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.” (16:2)

Wonderful details all.

But Mark does slow down when he comes to the end.  Half his book deals with the last days in Jerusalem, the way Jesus handled them and himself.  When he does die, Mark is the one who reports what his last words were in the language he spoke. “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” which Mark translates as “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me?”  Matthew does pick them up, without the original language piece, but Luke and John, no.

And then, Mark’s gospel comes to an end, and that is fitting as well. The women went to the tomb and…it was empty.  A young man in white was sitting there – “on the right,” by the way, not the left. The young man simply says: “He has risen.”  “Go tell his disciples.  And Peter.”  Why is Peter singled out?  Had Mark known him?  The women ran away from there in fear and astonishment…”and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.”  That’s where it ends, with the word "afraid."  Later, others added the more familiar ending, but Mark, as was his habit, left it in mid-air.

Mark lived in dangerous times, and knew fear, why not end it that way?  For Mark, fear was not the last thing, because there was always hope.  The young man said: “You will see him, as he told you.”  If that is true, what else is there to say?  So Mark stopped there.

As for today, we are near the end of Mark’s Gospel, where he reminds us to wait; to keep awake. This is the section where Mark slows way down, and yet we, in the weeks before Christmas, are rushing here and there, trying to buy gifts, plan family gatherings, decorate. In this season, we are the ones who finish one task and “immediately” run to the next.

But, Advent is about waiting and preparation, even in the midst of busy-ness. So hear these words of Mark. He says simply to “watch.” Mark tells us of the fig tree, reminding us to see when it blooms. He then uses the story of the master going on a journey. Before he leaves, this master does an unusual thing -- he gives his servants some freedom while he is away. Each has a specific, assigned task to perform while waiting for the master's return -- but the way they may choose to complete that task is left up to them. That is who we are to be this season, so that when Christmas arrives, we will be ready.  Amen.

                                                                                 Soli Deo Gloria

November 26, 2023 -- Christ the King Sunday
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

Christ the King (Year A)
Matthew 25
St. John’s, West Seneca
November 26, 2023

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the LORD Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Whatever else you can say about today’s gospel, one thing is certain; it is disturbing. It’s one of those problematic parables because it seems to be all about reward and punishment, with little mercy or grace.

On to the basics. For a shepherd, separating sheep from goats is not difficult. Though both are often pastured together and can be similarly colored, they are easily distinguished from each other. Goats are thinner than sheep. They have different eating habits (goats browse on leaves, shrubs, twigs and vines, while sheep graze on grass and clover). Goats are curious and independent by nature, while sheep prefer to stay put with the flock. Goats have hair, but sheep have fleece.

Of course, as Jesus goes on with his discourse, it's soon evident that he's not speaking about animals. He's using sheep and goats as an analogy for us, and we will be sorted into two groups at the final judgment -- sheep on the right and goats on the left.

The ones on the right – the sheep -are welcomed into the kingdom of God. The ones on the left are told to depart from Christ's presence forever. Now the criteria for the sorting is not about what sort of hair or fleece you have, or what you eat, or if you are independently minded.  It has to do with whether or not we have been merciful and helpful to those in dire straits. Those on the right, Jesus said, have actually ministered to him by their compassion toward those in need. Those on the left have ignored him by ignoring those who need help.

And there is a twist. Neither the sheep nor the goats recognize the Messiah when he comes. All of them are equally clueless. “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, or a stranger or naked or imprisoned?”

And of course, the answer: “Just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Yes, you heard right. What we do to God’s people, we do to Jesus.

So, what is this all about?  Well, as at the end of any year, when we celebrate Christ the King, we have some thinking to do.

This judgment account reminds us of our mission and how our faith is acted out in daily life.  The "goats" had separated their commitment to Jesus from daily life. They walked out on Sunday morning and thought they were done.  This story tells us that compassion is found in the ordinary and everyday life, those encounters where we are given the opportunity to be kind, compassionate, willing to listen and serve. You see, we need to hear that because most of life is not played out on the big stage, in the kinds of events that make headline news. No, our lives are about the smaller things -- the chance meetings, the routine places, the circumstances where, when we do a good deed, it seems to us so ordinary that we think it's hardly worth mentioning.

One more thing to hear from this account is that God has provided some directions for living. Jesus has shown us that, all year, with signs and wonders, and healing, and teaching, and even in eating with the outcasts. These words of Jesus are instructions about what to do -- at least in circumstances where we see someone in need: We should think of what we would do if that person were Jesus, and then following through, for in helping that person, we are ministering to Jesus himself. 

Kenneth Carter, in an article called “Our Spiritual Bottom Line,” tells this story.

“A member of our congregation was involved in the local homeless ministry. He was recognized one year for his volunteer work there. He is a quiet man who would not draw attention to himself, but it is good for ministries to tell these kinds of stories. He said that his motivation for helping the homeless was the story of his brother, who suffers from a psychological illness, which sometimes leads him to paranoid delusions. His brother lives in the Pacific Northwest. My friend knows that his brother travels from one homeless shelter to another, and sometimes he writes home. He says that when he serves the homeless men in that ministry, he imagines that one of them is his brother.

"And, of course, one of them is his brother. When did we see you hungry, and give you food? When did we see you a stranger, and welcome you?

"This parable is meant to stir our imaginations, to help us to see the world in a new way; and of course, only those with eyes to see can get it.

"There is another clue to understanding this parable. Can we put ourselves in the place of Jesus in this parable? And if we can, which Jesus? It is, maybe, the question we ought to ask. Jesus is judge, and Jesus is hungry, homeless, imprisoned. If we put ourselves in the place of Jesus the judge, we are making a big mistake. Now, this goes against our grain a little, because wouldn’t we all like to be the judge, to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down,’ you get the prize or you get the eternal punishment!

"The problem is that this parable clearly says there is one judge, and that is Jesus.”

As always, this is a startling message in Jesus’ time, and like us, not one that they wanted to hear. You see, the Pharisees, the scribes, were looking to have their prejudices confirmed, their patriotic fervor pumped up. Instead, Jesus is saying something revolutionary, that in the last judgment, it is not going to be as you expect. The judge will look not at outward circumstances, but deep into the heart. There will be those who think they are sheep finding themselves to be goats, and there will be those who think of themselves as goats who will be placed on the sheep’s side. “Not all Israel will be saved, and not all Gentiles will be lost.”

When we hear this story, it is disconcerting, perhaps leaving us feeling a bit of fear and dread. We hear it as punishment. But why?

It doesn’t have to. It is a message of hope addressed to the whole world. It begins: “All the nations will be gathered before him …” Not just the people of Israel. Not just St. John’s. Not just the devout faithful. But “all the nations.”

All people will be judged, and some will be found worthy — both within Israel and outside it. “The standard of judgment will not be the usual self-righteous human standard. It will have nothing to do with what groups we belong to. It will have everything to do with the people we’ve reached out to. It will have nothing to do with the love we’ve felt inside. It will have everything to do with the acts of love we’ve performed.”

For us, as Lutherans, it sounds a bit like works-righteousness. After all, we are justified, made right with God, not by works, but by grace through faith.

This parable of the sheep and the goats does not rule out faith, and Luther would agree. True, genuine faith, and love of God, always issues forth good deeds, good works.

I would argue that if you don’t have the good works, you probably don’t have the faith either. Faith sees the face of Jesus in each person.

This is indeed the good news as we finish off one church year and begin a new one. We will have yet another opportunity to live out our calling as we start the cycle again next week, with Mark’s Gospel as the central focus.

I began by saying this is about mercy. Yes, this parable is filled with mercy. Those who are in need receive mercy, and the ones who give it generously, extending it to all, received it as well, being blessed by God, welcomed into heaven. This may be Matthew 25, but it goes all the way back to the Sermon on the Mount, in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

As Jesus said: “Let anyone with ears, listen!”:  Amen.

                                                                           Soli Deo Gloria

November 19, 2023 -- Pentecost 25
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

25 Pentecost (Year A)
Matthew 25: 14-30
St. John’s, West Seneca
November 19, 2023

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the LORD Jesus Christ.  Amen.

"Most museums are all about success.

"At the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., you can see the 1903 Wright Flyer, the Apollo 11 Command Module, and Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit. You can even visit a studio model of the starship Enterprise, from the "Star Trek" television series.

"At the Louvre in Paris, you can look at the statue “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” the painting “Liberty Leading the People,” the statue “Venus de Milo,” and, of course, the most famous painting in the world, “The Mona Lisa.”

"At the Imperial War Museum in London, you can get close to an American Sherman tank, a British Spitfire fighter aircraft, a surveillance drone, and some of the high-tech gadgets used by the British Secret Service.

"Whether these museums focus on space exploration, artwork or warfare, they contain the best of the best.

"But where can you find the things that flop?

"The Museum of Failure in Brooklyn, N.Y., ‘paints an epic portrait of failures big and small,’ says Fast Company magazine. The collection is full of objects, games, robots and other experiments, from Google Glass to the Segway to the ‘overhyped Ford Edsel.’

"At the Museum of Failure, you can see a model of the 17th century Swedish warship Vasa, which sank just 1,400 yards into its maiden voyage. Vasa was a powerfully armed vessel, but she was dangerously unstable. With too much weight in her upper structure, she capsized after encountering a light wind.

"You can ponder the ‘Springblade’ running shoes, by Adidas. The shoe has 16 curved “blades” that are supposed to make you feel ‘like you have springs under your feet.’ Introduced in 2013, they were judged to be too heavy for serious runners. Then, there was a big recall in 2015 because the blades kept breaking.

"You can see, but not smoke, the Kent cigarette. Its ‘Micronite’ filter was advertised as a safety feature. But the filter actually put smokers at greater risk because it contained asbestos.

"You can also learn about CNN+, a streaming service that lasted only three weeks, and a WWII aircraft carrier that was supposed to be built on top of a floating iceberg.

"Failures, flops, misfires. Every single one of them.

"We can laugh at the exhibits in the Museum of Failure, but we can also learn from them. ‘You have to take risks,’ says the curator of the museum. ‘If designers were less afraid of failure, or getting negatively judged by their peers, we’d see more great design.’”

And so I come to today’s parable. Matthew 25 consists of three of these stories. As Jesus’ time on earth is ending, He teaches his disciples how to be ready for that day when he returns. Last week featured the wise and foolish bridesmaids, telling us to be ready by being prepared, by having oil in our lamps.

Today Jesus is talking about the risks we might need to take as he speaks in the Parable of the Talents. He praises the slaves who trade their talents to make more. And yes, he understands that they may end up with poor results, failures, but they are commended because they are not afraid of failure, and they trust in God.

In this parable, the master goes away, leaving his servants in charge. Now, these servants, or slaves, were given a great amount of responsibility. The first is given five talents and then he uses his resources to make five more talents, and the two-talent slave does the same, making two more talents, but the one-talent slave hid his talent in the ground. Upon the return of the master, the first two received the thanks and commendation of the master, while the third was condemned for being “wicked and lazy.”

In interpreting this parable, Religion professor Daniel Ott states that it is clear that “to take the easy road, to be lukewarm, never to take a stand, really is not to live at all. The one who buries his treasure will never gain anything. The one who is neither hot nor cold really has no temperature at all.”

The same is true for us, in both our personal life and our life here at St. John’s. If we take our treasures and hide them away or bury them, we never gain anything. And just as Jesus argues that sometimes we need to like “the children of the night,” He is saying in this parable that there is nothing wrong with using our time, talents and treasures in bold, even risky ways.

Last week, Jesus was emphasizing that we do not know the day or time of his return, so the disciples – and we – must be ready. In this parable, also about the return of Jesus, when is not the point. Rather it is knowing who is in charge.

The first two servants make their decision immediately and have a good return. They are praised and welcomed. The third has some explaining to do. He gives two reasons, the first is that he knows his master is a harsh man, suggesting that he is greedy and unjust. It’s out of place; there is no indication of that, and remember, the master has praised the other two.

The second is that he is afraid. Afraid of risk, of taking a chance.

This parable is about knowing who is in charge. The master – God – gives to each of us according to our abilities. God knows what we can do and has entrusted us with telling the story of Jesus. Also, God gives us out of what is already His, not something that is not. In the parable, the first two understand that and go for it. The third does not.

As for the servant’s fear and worry, well, haven’t we all been there? It is risky trying out new things, especially ministries. That is why we need to be careful not to cut anyone down too quickly. Every idea is good for five minutes. One writer on this parable states that the servant’s fear motivated him to act irrationally, for no good…or loss.

From this we are to learn to be diligent with what we have been given, knowing that time may be short. But we must also seek to understand just who God is, his character and his love. The parable is clear: God will punish those who do not serve him as they should, not because he is unjust, but because he is just.

“The good news of this parable is that God gives each of us a set of valuable talents to use in the world.  It’s a good thing that the word 'talent' works both as an ancient word for a unit of money and a modern word for ability.”

When we focus on the talents and gifts we have been given, what we need to do is trust God. We are given “each according to … ability.” We are to use them for God’s kingdom. And yes, that does mean taking a few chances. But we must not be afraid of failure.

As followers of Jesus, we are to trust God in this mission given to us. Trust God, instead of the market, or any false prophet that comes along. We are to witness to what God is doing, putting our talents to good use. Just think of where that could lead us.

Because in the end, the last thing we want is regret. I came across this poem by Nadine Stair, an 85-year-old patient of Bernie Siegel, facing death. It comes from his book Peace, Love and Healing: Bodymind Communication and the Path to Self-Healing.

“If I had my life to live over ...
I would take more chances, I would take more
Trips, I would scale more mountains,
I would swim more rivers, and I would
Watch more sunsets. I would eat more
Ice cream and fewer beans.
I would have more actual troubles
And fewer imaginary ones. You see ...
I was one of those people who lived
Prophylactically and sensibly and sanely,
Hour after hour and day after day ....
... I've been
One of those people who never went anywhere without
A thermometer, a hot water bottle, a gargle, a
Raincoat and a parachute ....
If I had it to do all over again,
I'd travel lighter, much lighter,
Than I have.
I would start barefoot earlier
In the spring, and I'd stay that way
Later in the fall. And I would
Ride more merry-go-rounds, and
Catch more gold rings, and greet
More people, and pick more flowers,
And dance more often. If I had it
To do all over again.
But you see,
I don't.”

Wise words on how to live as we put our trust in God. Amen.

                                                                             Soli Deo Gloria


November 12, 2023 -- Pentecost 24
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

24 Pentecost (Year A)
Matthew 25: 1-13
St. John’s, West Seneca
November 12, 2023

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the LORD Jesus Christ.  Amen.

In just a few short weeks, we end the liturgical year and begin again with Advent. So, as we wind up the year, we now have before us the “end times” texts, those readings that remind us of Jesus’s return. In this parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, we are asked to be ready to go when the bridegroom – Jesus - finally arrives.  What does it mean to be ready so that when the bridegroom arrives, we will be able to join the celebration?

Here are a few examples:

  • Winter is coming. We know that. Are you preparing? Do you have a shovel? Or salt? Is your snow blower in good working condition? Is there some extra food in the pantry? I always stock up this time of year: peanut butter, crackers, canned peaches, maybe a few treats. And after last year, we have no excuses for not being ready.
  • That’s for home. What about your car? Mercy just sent out an email with all the items needed in an emergency car kit.
  • You’re driving through South Dakota, heading west. The sign announces that the next town is 100 miles away. Do you have plenty of gas? Along those lines, before I left for my road trip to Gettysburg, I had my oil changed, tires rotated, and my Triple A card in my handbag. Of course, you cannot prepare for everything. My friends, returning also from Gettysburg, hit a deer and ultimately needed a number of repairs.
  • When packing for a more extensive vacation, do you put all your clothes into your checked baggage, or do you place a few important pieces in your carry-on?
  • And…if your are really organized, do you have a contingency plan for your contingency plan?

The five “less than wise” bridesmaids had one thing to do: bring plenty of oil.

In his parables, Jesus takes a familiar situation, and then includes a surprise that makes us re-think everything.  In this one, there are 10 bridesmaids who are waiting for the prospective bridegroom.  Ah, the groom is running late, and they all nod off for a while.  But then comes the cry.  “Look! Here is the bridegroom!  Come out to meet him.”

Now, I like this parable because I know what it is to wait in expectation. As a chaplain, I have – as part of my job – one night of on-call each week. Mine is Sunday evening, beginning at 8 pm and ending at 7 am Monday morning. For those who have jobs where on-call is a reality, you know what it is like to be ready for that moment when the bridegroom arrives, or when the phone rings. As a side note, when I first began, I had a pager. Now, each Sunday afternoon, I have a ritual.  I have my clothes ready, laid out so as not to waste any time fumbling through my closet. My phone is on the bedside table; I have pen and paper ready. We have a priest assigned to Mercy, so his number is one of my contacts. But there are occasions when he may be out of town or on vacation, and so I have at the ready a list of priests to call should the Sacrament of the Sick be required. I rarely get a good night’s sleep.

If and when a call comes in, I answer, ask a few questions, such as, do they want a priest? I also ask for the unit and room number, as well as a first name. Being pulled out of a sound sleep is not conducive to understanding a full name. With all that, I get dressed, wash my face, brush my teeth, comb my hair and out the door I go.  They don’t get a ravishing, beauteous chaplain in the middle of the night.  I can usually be there in about twenty minutes.

I like to think of myself as a wise bridesmaid. I am prepared and ready to go because that is my vocation and I serve. As tiring and frustrating as night call can be, it is also rewarding.  It is a good thing for which to be awakened.

Doctors and nurses know this scenario well, as do social workers and veterinarians, airline pilots and those in the military, and a host of other occupations that serve others.

As Christians we are called to be wise and watchful as well, for we do not know the hour when the bridegroom, when Jesus, will return.

So, Jesus telling us to “stay awake” is more than simply not going to sleep. Instead, we are to be ready, to be aware.

Now, there has always been discussion about how the five wise bridesmaids should have shared what they had. Argue that though we may, that is not the point. If this had shown up in the Sermon on the Mount, maybe, but this is chapter 25, near the end of Matthew’s Gospel, and the readings reflect Jesus’s return.

We are simply to be ready. Keep our lamps trimmed by putting our spiritual lives in order, not later, but now.  No excuses will do.  A good spiritual inventory will help reveal where the untrimmed lamp may lie. And the oil for that lamp is obvious, we just often don’t think of it in that way.

To live in anticipation, in vigilance, to be ready, means that we are to do the things we have been told to do. The bridesmaids were given a task, so are we. And Matthew is clear in this chapter. We are to:

  • Bear witness to God by welcoming the stranger;
  • Feed the hungry;
  • Visit the sick and the imprisoned;
  • And of course, the great commission, to make disciples wherever we go.

All in this chapter. Do this, and all of it falls under “loving your neighbor as yourself.”  Do this and you may rest assured that there will be oil in your lamps.

And while this parable looks ahead to the end of days, it is also a recipe for the joyful life. It is in giving, in loving, that we receive. Jesus presents himself in various ways each and every day, and we are called to rise from sleep to assist wherever we find Jesus.

Are you ready to lend a hand?  Are you ready to take a moment even if your calendar is filled?  Are you ready to jump in and take on whatever task God throws in front of you?  Spiritually, you can be prepared. And by being prepared, you will help others to have enough oil for their lamps.

And all the while, remember that the bridegroom’s arrival is a great event. It is supposed to be joyous.  When you receive an invitation to a friend’s house, there is no panic.  We look forward to being with friends and anticipating all the festivities.

Jesus is not inviting you to an IRS audit, but to a party.  The party is worth the anticipation.  The bridegroom is worth the preparation. And a life of unprepared lamps only offers regrets.  God wants as many as possible to come.  

 In the words of the great Advent hymn:

“Wake, awake, for night is flying,
the watchmen on the heights are crying;
awake, Jerusalem, at last.
Midnight hears the welcome voices,
and at the thrilling cry rejoices:
‘Come forth, you maidens! Night is past.
The Bridegroom comes! Awake;
your lamps with gladness take!’
Prepare yourselves to meet the Lord,
whose light has stirred the waiting guard." Amen.

                                                                               Soli Deo Gloria


Reformation Sunday -- October 29, 2023
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

Reformation Sunday (Year A)
St. John’s, West Seneca
October 29, 2023

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the LORD Jesus Christ.  Amen.

I had a professor who began each lecture with: “Today I have three points to make; three, for the Trinity. Or four, for the gospels, Five, for the Torah. You get my drift. The class was team taught and so the professors would often joke with one another on who had the more Biblical number. Once the one had an 8 point lecture.

I always thought that one day one of them might say that the lecture had 95 points, for Luther’s ninety five theses. Thank goodness, that never happened.

So, wanting to have a little fun on Reformation Sunday, and thinking over my ministry in the church and as a chaplain at Mercy Hospital, I came up with a short list, just three points, for the Trinity. It contains things I hope you know, and the little things that I get frustrated over.

The first comes up most often at Mercy. Often, a religion is not designated.

Every once in a while, someone will answer the Lutheran religion, or the Episcopal religion. There is no such thing. The religion is Christianity, and we are Christians.

Christianity is defined as a belief in the Triune God: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. That is a broad definition, but you must remember, back in 1517, when Luther posted his 95 Theses, that is all there was, hence the word Christendom. The only Christian church, the Catholic Church, was situated in Rome, along with the Orthodox Church, basically anything east of Rome. These two had a disagreement back in the 11th century and that was a schism, a split. That’s all. Christian and Catholic were synonymous. Then came Luther and his protest, from which we get the word Protestant. Those who followed Luther would first be called “protestants,” and eventually became Lutherans, which Luther would have hated. That opened the door for many more “splits,” reforms, and then came others like John Calvin and Zwingli, eventually Wesley. There were Anabaptists, and Anglicans, and Presbyterians, Methodists, UCC and so many more. Today there are dozens of different types of Protestants, varying with respect to church polity, worship form, interpretation of the Bible.

We are all Christians. And basically, if you are not Catholic or Orthodox, you are a Protestant who has a specific tradition. So, all Lutherans are Christians, but not all Christians are Lutherans. Getting back to Mercy Hospital, it is always a joy for me when someone answers my question: I’m a Christian. And the best answer I had was about a week ago, when one young man said he was “Team Jesus.”

My next point involves what the Bible says and what traditions and legends have grown out of the Bible. Now, the very definition of legend is that there is a real person or persons. At Holy Trinity, I remember one member mansplaining that there were Three Wise Men and their names were Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior. That was in response to my noting that Matthew does not say there were three wise men; he does use the plural for magi, but not a specific number. And Matthew does not record any names for them. There could have been two, or nine, or twenty. In some of the Eastern traditions, the number is twelve. There are three gifts. But traditions and folklore develop and the men came to have names, and along with that, were designated to come from three distinct areas: one from Europe, one from Asia, one from Africa. That was the known world at the time. The names for the Wise Men came about during the eighth century. But it is not Biblical.

If you really want to throw off the Nativity Scene, they visited Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in a house, and given King Herod’s directive, Jesus was most probably not an infant, but two years old or so.

I love these legends, these traditions. At Christmas, my home isn’t complete without my nativity set, complete with three wise men. The point of Matthew’s story is that Christ came for all people, as the light of the world and great people came to pay homage.

And then my third is the sorts of little things that bother me, petty really. For example:

  • It is the book of Revelation, not Revelations. I’m always surprised that people don’t know that.
  • When asked about Jesus’ disciples: most will rattle off Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Two are right. Mark and Luke were not part of the 12. They are, however, with Matthew and John, Evangelists, writers of a Gospel
  • There are two creation stories in Genesis. The first chapter and then a second one that begins in chapter two. One uses the word God and the other LORD GOD, usually in capital letters.
  • You will not find the Apostle’s Creed in Scripture.
  • The word “catholic,” with a small c, is an adjective meaning “universal.” So there is no need to get upset when we confess that we believe in “one holy, catholic, apostolic” church.
  • Noah’s wife is not Joan of Arc.

I bring all this up because this is Reformation Sunday. One of the gifts of the Reformation is that the church service was translated into the common language; in Luther’s case, German. It was translated so that all people could read and study God’s word, and not have to depend on the priest. You could study on your own, ponder the questions that it asks. And upon pondering, you could ask questions.

At my 50th birthday celebration, I invited to the service a number of guests, included Sister Gerry Murray, whom I had gotten to know when I did a Protestant service at OLV. I had, at the time, for the children, a game where they could ask any question. They would write them on a slip of paper and I would draw one out. It was fun. On that day, I drew this question: whatever happened to Joseph, Mary’s husband and father to Jesus? I didn’t know; it isn’t recorded. So I asked Sr. Gerry, and she provided the answer. The Catholic tradition said that Joseph died an old man, and that Jesus and Mary were at his bedside. And now Joseph is the patron saint of those who are dying.

Luther explained how the Reformation happened:

“While I have been sleeping, or drinking Wittenberg beer with my friend Philip and with Amsdorf, it is the word that has done great things…I have done nothing, I have let the Word act. It is all powerful, it takes hearts prisoner.”

The study of Scripture is one of the finest gifts of the Reformation, and Luther is right: it will take your heart captive.

The Bible contains those sacred and holy stories of people who weren’t always holy.

  • If you have family issues, read about Jacob’s family and his twelve sons who really can’t get along.
  • If you are moving to a new place, read Ruth, and learn how this foreigner accompanies her mother-in-law back to Israel. She will become King David’s great-grandmother.
  • If you want to learn of friendship, read in I and II Samuel about David’s friendship with Jonathan.
  • If you think there is no humor in the Bible, re-read Jonah, the comical – and oh so human, prophet.
  • If you think you don’t fit in, then the gospels will tell you that you do, because we are the very people Jesus wants to hang around with.
  • And, if you think you stand outside God’s table, remember that Jesus had Judas at his table, and as a beloved disciple.

John begins his gospel with “The WORD was made flesh and dwelt among us…”, the Word came down here, not with sugarcoating, but in the pain, and the loneliness. The more acquainted we are with the Word of God, even in the mundane realities of our lives, the closer we will be to God.  And that means all of it, not just the verses we like; not just those comforting words, but stories and the ugliness, yes, the messiness that is found in Scripture.  It is a hallmark of our Lutheran tradition that the WORD showed itself in that suffering of the cross.   Luther taught that God is hidden not in glory, with all its luster, but in the darkness.

It is one of the great gifts of the Reformation that we can now read the Bible and study, and ask questions about faith and life, as well as questions about the church’s practice. Why do we have only two Sacraments, while the Catholic Church has 7?

Luther intended for his statements to be argued. He suggested that changes be considered and made. That didn’t happen and he was disappointed. But he launched a whole movement that included education for all, at a time when that was not only discouraged, but prohibited. So, take that CELEBRATE insert home and read it again. Read the Bible, the Word of God,  and find your faith renewed and inspired. Amen.

                                                                                Soli Deo Gloria

October 22, 2023 -- Pentecost 21
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

21 Pentecost (Year A)
Matthew 22
St. John’s, West Seneca
October 22, 2023

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the LORD Jesus Christ.  Amen.

It was bound to happen. Jesus has been teaching, and after listening to a few of Jesus’ parables, now the Pharisees and elders are beginning to understand. It is one thing to listen to stories, but quite another when you realize the story is about you, in the most negative light. It’s time for action. As Matthew writes: “The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said.” Now, this isn’t their first attempt to test Jesus. But Jesus is talking about them and this cannot stand.

For all their anger and plotting, they didn’t want to take a chance and arrest Jesus, because the people think of him as a prophet. Most probably they were talking among themselves, discussing strategy “to entrap him in what he said.” So today we find that they sent their disciples to Jesus, along with the Herodians.

Upon meeting, they lay it on thick. “Teacher we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” It’s apparent that they are disingenuous, fawning all over Jesus. Now while the greeting is over the top, one wonders what they really thought. Probably that they doubted his claims, disapproved of his teaching and especially how he undermined their authority. And added to that is the company Jesus keeps: tax collectors and prostitutes, rather than the elite.

They launch into their agenda. “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  Now the question is asked to trap Jesus in a no-win scenario. They want “yes” or “no.” It’s rather like the question of a lawyer asking a witness on the stand: “Is it true you still beat your wife?” To answer no is bad, but yes is worse. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

If Jesus says yes, it is lawful to pay taxes, he could very well lose the support of the people who see him as a prophet. If he says no, then they could hand him over to the Roman authorities and accuse him of sedition.

Jesus sees through this, asking why they put him to the test. And then he calls for a denarius, which was the coin used for a tax.  In Roman-occupied territories, “a periodic head tax was typically levied during a census whenever the Roman procurator over Judea needed additional funds. The coin, a denarius, typically had an image of the emperor’s head and an inscription referencing the emperor’s official title (e.g., ‘Tiberius Caesar, Son the Divine Augustus, Augustus’).”

They find the coin, and in typical rabbinic style, Jesus answers their question with a question: “Whose head is this and whose title?” With coin in hand, they are able to answer: “The emperor’s.” With that comes one of the most well-known verses in the Bible. I think the King James version is best.  “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.” Amazed at his answer, they go away.

Now, as one scholar wrote: “The issue of paying tax to the Roman emperor was one of the hottest topics in the Middle East in Jesus’s day. Imagine how you’d like it if you woke up one morning and discovered that people from the other end of the world had marched into your country and demanded that you pay them tax as the reward for having your land stolen! That sort of thing still causes riots and revolutions, and it had done just that when Jesus was growing up in Galilee.

One of the most famous Jewish leaders when Jesus was a boy, a man called Judas…had led a revolt precisely on this issue. The Romans had crushed it mercilessly, leaving crosses around the countryside, with dead and dying revolutionaries on them, as a warning that paying the tax was compulsory, not optional. The Pharisees’ question came, as we would say, with a health warning. Tell people they shouldn’t pay, and you might end up on a cross.”

Now, anyone leading a movement would be expected to oppose this tax. And if Jesus wasn’t opposing the tax, they would be suspect and left asking themselves: why have we followed him?

So let’s think about this. Maybe Jesus wasn’t trying to give one answer for all time on what constituted the relationship between God and earthly rulers.

Jesus’s point to the challenge here was to challenge the Pharisees’ very identity. Perhaps they had been compromised. Had they truly and honestly given their allegiance to God? Or were they going about, playing both ends against the middle, keeping the Romans content while speaking about God?

And let’s take a look at that piece of silver. It would have been stamped with the image of the emperor Tiberius and so therefore, belonged to the emperor. Others might have it for a time, but only a government has the power to create coinage. We do the same.  Most of our coins have the profiles of presidents. Many of them also contain “mint marks” that tell where each coin was manufactured.

This is about our identity. As followers of Jesus, we too have an identifying mark, invisible, but a mark all the same. In baptism, we are marked with water and oil, sealed by the Holy Spirit. Everything we have and all that we are is meant to be used for God’s service. The question is: Are others able to discern that we are Christians?

The Pharisees will ask Jesus – in a few verses - to identify the greatest commandment.  He will answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” That’s loving God with everything you have. But then Jesus adds a second part, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s a reminder that love goes not only to God, but to your neighbor and yourself, people stamped with the image of God.

Love of God. Love of neighbor.  This is the one thing to remember. It is at the heart of our faith, love directed to God and to all his people. And while many believed, and not just in the Roman Empire, that treasure is found in coins, we know that as God’s children, we are the treasure.

“Back in the third century, Rome was still the dominant power and Christians were undergoing persecution. In the year 258, the emperor Valerian commanded his Imperial treasury to confiscate all money and possessions belonging to the Christian church. Responding to this threat, the pope put a young man named Lawrence in charge of the church’s riches, and he also gave him responsibility for the church’s outreach to the poor.

"The Roman emperor demanded that Lawrence turn over all the riches of the church and gave him three days to round it up. Lawrence quickly sold all the church’s valuables and gave the money to widows and to the sick. He then distributed all the church’s property to the poor.

"On the third day, the emperor summoned Lawrence to his palace and asked for the wealth of the church. With great fanfare, Lawrence entered the palace, stopped, and then gestured back to the door. Streaming in behind him were crowds of poor, crippled, blind and suffering people. He proclaimed, ‘These are the true treasures of the church.’” The emperor was not amused and sentenced Lawrence to death."

We are the treasures of the church, stamped in God’s image. Yes, we have coinage and we pay taxes, but that is not our image. We give to God the things that are God’s when we devote our time, talents, and treasures to feeding those who are hungry, caring for the poor, being generous with all we have as befits a good steward.  We continue God’s work when we look for the face of Jesus in the faces of people around us — especially the strangers, the thirsty, the hungry and the sick.

Jesus challenges the Pharisees by asking them whose image they see. What he is truly asking is how devoted they are to God. Are they just talking, keeping up appearances? The same is true for us. Rather than dividing our lives into what belongs to God and what belongs to an earthly government, maybe we need to take a long look at our relationship with God. We give to God the things that are God’s — body, soul, mind, and heart. Then we put our trust in God, who will provide, no matter whose image is stamped on a coin. Amen.

                                                                                  Soli Deo Gloria