May 22, 2022 -- Sixth Sunday of Easter
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

6 Easter (Year C)
Acts, John
St. John’s, West Seneca
May 22, 2022

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

What a strange book Acts of the Apostles is! We meet all types of interesting people, travel to exotic places, there are amazing transformations, and we, all these years later, are challenged to think about our faith, our ministry, every step of the way.

This is where we find ourselves today. Paul is traveling with Timothy and Silas in what is now Turkey. Paul has a vision in which a man asks him to “come over to Macedonia and help us.”

Come over to Macedonia? You see, this is a Roman colony run by Gentiles who have little respect for the laws and traditions of Israel. And while Paul and his companions are followers of Jesus, they were raised in the Jewish tradition and that is part of their identity.  Also Macedonia appears to have had a reputation for corruption, with all sorts of nastiness going on.

But, true to who he is, Paul announces: “Let’s go.” Acts tells us that Paul, Timothy and Silas “immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.”

The three men sail from Troas to Samothrace, and then to Neapolis, and finally to Philippi, which was a leading city of Macedonia. They stayed in the city for several days, and then went down to the river to pray. They found a  group of women who were gathered there, and following the example of Jesus always showing respect and honor to women, they engage them in conversation.

One of them was a successful businesswoman named Lydia, and Acts tells us that the “Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” She accepted the good news that Paul was sharing, and both she and her household were baptized. Then she offered them hospitality, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And they accepted. And with this, Lydia became the first European convert to Christianity. She was received into the Christian faith with no concerns about her heritage, her traditions, her status.

That this text is today, talking about going to the “other,” could not be more opportune. It reminds me that God is one step ahead of us.

The church as we know it would never have gone anywhere if it had not been for those first missionaries going out as Jesus had done. They left their native land and familiar world to travel to other places, with different traditions and ways, always open-minded and following the commandment that Jesus gave: to love one another as we have been loved.

This past week has been so challenging and sad for me as I go about my rounds at the hospital. After the tragedy of last weekend, we gathered on Monday morning to talk about a prayer service, because we are those who love one another, following Jesus’ commandment. The service was held at noon. But later that day, we learned that at least two of our associates had lost loved ones, one an aunt, another a brother. Senseless.

So…I’ve been disheartened all week, and as I have greeted my African American colleagues, I wonder how they see me…welcoming, or harboring something hateful?

If we are to take Jesus’ ministry seriously, and Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles, we need to remember a few things about God. The first is to understand that everyone is made “in the image of God,” according to the book of Genesis.  An author and pastor I follow, John Pavlovitz, says: “When you meet another person, you are coming face-to-face with a once-in-history, never-to-be-repeated reflection of the image of God. … If God is God, there’s no other option: they are each made of God stuff. … Every single day you encounter thousands of breathing, animated thumbnails of the Divine.”

And there is this. “Biblically, we have the great tradition within which revelation from God is understood to come mostly through the stranger, the foreigner, the unexpected, the unfamiliar, in what’s different, in the surprise. For this reason the Scriptures insist on the importance of welcoming strangers. Since God is Other, strangers, among all others, are the most likely to be carrying God's revelation.”

Whether black, white, Asian, European, African, Latino or Native American, a person is made of “God stuff.” In the eyes of God, everyone is good and beautiful; there are no distinctions.

We need to practice true Christian hospitality, showing the same kind of welcome that Jesus showed the people of his day. And not just here, in this space, but as we go out, where the real mission field awaits. We do this by being open to listening to others’ stories. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, women and children, those with no status. As Jesus led the way, we are to follow. We must be willing to put aside stereotypes and see each person as a child of God, a sinner for whom Christ died, a man or woman who is made in the image of God, no matter how obscured that image might be through our own sinfulness or societal prejudice.

We must make a serious commitment to embrace all people with God’s love and grace. We cannot let hate win the day.

A man wrote this on his Facebook post a few years back. “I got on the subway in Manhattan tonight and found a swastika on every advertisement and every window. The train was silent as everyone stared at each other, uncomfortable and unsure what to do. [On one of the images posted with it, you could see the scrawled slogan, ‘Jews belong in the oven,’ followed by a swastika.] One guy got up and said, “’hand sanitizer gets rid of Sharpie. We need alcohol.’ He found some tissues and got to work. I’ve never seen so many people simultaneously reach into their bags and pockets looking for tissues and Purel. Within about two minutes, all the Nazi symbolism was gone.”  From a Facebook post by Gregory Locke, February 6, 2017. That one is easy. This next example is far more difficult…

Another says this: “This is the challenge of Christian hospitality: to embrace all people as God has embraced us in Christ. … In Le Chambon [writes professor Christine Pohl], a small community of French Protestants that rescued Jews during the Second World War, citizens opened their homes, schools, and churches to strangers with quiet, steady hospitality, and made Le Chambon the safest place for Jews in all of France. Residents defined a neighbor as anyone who needed help, and by doing so saved the lives of approximately five thousand people being persecuted by the Nazis. When the police asked their pastor André Trocmé to turn in the Jews, he responded, ‘We do not know what a Jew is. We know only men.’ In the face of terrible danger, he and his congregation were an uncommon Christian community that took a bold stand based on common human identity. They knew that every stranger is created in the image of God, made in the same human flesh.”

And there is this: “Norman Rockwell is best remembered for his iconic 1943 painting ‘Freedom From Want,’ depicting a smiling White family gathered around a Thanksgiving turkey. But it is less well known that he decisively turned a corner just a few decades later, choosing to reject the airbrushed image of a nation implicitly populated with only happy, White, middle-class families. …

Rockwell did this by abandoning his employer of nearly 50 years, The Saturday Evening Post, in large part because the magazine would let him portray Blacks only in subservient positions. After including two Black children in his 1961 illustration ‘Golden Rule,’ Rockwell began receiving hate mail from segregationists, and the Post told him he should paint portraits only of statesmen or celebrities. Those instructions clashed with his conscience. … He joined Look magazine, and it was there that he painted some of the hardest-hitting, most widely seen visual attacks on racism in the nation’s history. Rockwell’s first illustration for Look, published in 1964, was titled ‘The Problem We All Live With.’ It showed the torsos of four besuited U.S. marshals escorting a 6-year-old Black girl in a white dress, Ruby Bridges, to integrate an all-White school in New Orleans, with [a racial slur] scrawled above her. Although Rockwell and Look received a torrent of angry letters, the magazine stood by him. When one approving reader wrote, ‘You have just said in one painting what people cannot say in a lifetime,’ Rockwell wrote back: ‘I just had my 70th birthday and I am trying to be a bit more adult in my work.’

We do have our work cut out for us. But it is all in front of us, each and every work, with Jesus, and Paul, and the disciples, and all those who have gone before us.

I spent a few minutes on Friday with Matt, one of our Transport team, who first asked me if I could find some devotional materials for him. He calls me “Chap.” When I asked how he was doing, if he knew any of the victims, he said “no,” then added, “but in one way, I know all of them.” His mother lives in the neighborhood, his sister as well. He knows full well it could have been him. Because of evil, because of hate. They were shopping for groceries, a mundane task, one done for your family. We shared a hug, and I told him that he can count on me to always listen.

Paul ventures off to Philippi today. He had no idea what they would think of him, a foreigner. They might hate him because he was from Israel. They might not like his accent, or well, you fill in the blank. But they went. They were sharing the good news: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Let’s get out there and share this good news, remembering that all we meet are made in the “image of God.” Amen.

                                                                                 Soli Deo Gloria

 

May 15, 2022 -- Fifth Sunday of Easter
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

5 Easter (Year C)
Revelation 21:1-6
St. John’s, West Seneca
May 15, 2022

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Risen Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Some thoughts on heaven:
·  Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary: “Heaven, n.: A place where the wicked cease from troubling you with talk of their personal affairs, and the good listen with attention while you expound on your own.”
·  From Friedrich Nietzsche: “In heaven all the interesting people are missing.”
·  From Mark Twain: “Travel has no longer any charm for me. I have seen all the foreign countries I want to except heaven and hell, and I have only a vague curiosity about one of those.”
    Heaven is where the cooks are French, the police are English, the mechanics are German, the [romantics] are Italian, and everything is organized by the Swiss. (Hell is where the English are the cooks, the Germans are the police, the French are the mechanics, the Swiss are the [romantics], and everything is organized by the Italians.)

Heaven makes its way into our language as well, and some expressions with “heaven” come to mind: “Heaven forbid …”; “Heaven knows…” or “For heaven’s sake…”

But yet, and I’m sure you can relate to this: have you ever noticed that people can describe hell in vivid detail, but when it comes to heaven, the images are…well, boring, non-descript, angels floating around, nothing really happening. Today, I would like you to think of heaven, because, in today’s second reading, John is giving us a preview of that glorious place:  No more tears. No more death. No more pain. Comforting words for the grieving and tested, especially during John’s time and certainly for our own, certainly for Buffalo as we grieve today.

John gives us a glimpse of paradise to come — and it isn’t fluffy clouds, angels and harps.  It’s a bustling, busy and beautiful city. A New Jerusalem. And from John’s words, we see:

 • It’s holy. The word ‘holy’ is to ‘set apart’ and it is.
• It’s as beautiful as a bride on her wedding day. And, like most weddings, it has a purpose, and all is planned.
• God is there. And, as we continue into the next section, we see all sorts of wonderful things.
• Twelve gates are named for the 12 tribes but entered by God’s new people.
• It’s built from precious metals and gems — valuables purified out of the earth.
• It’s filled with cultural imports from all nations.
• It’s always daylight, never night — and restfully so.

This city is unsurpassed, and yet, if you asked most people what they believe heaven to be, a city would not come in as the first choice. For many of us, it is just too counterintuitive. We often do not think of heaven as a city. Cities are busy and noisy, chaotic at times, with traffic of all kinds. Too many believe a city to be humanity at its worst, and we saw some of that yesterday.

I suspect that for many, a more obvious vision God could have sent John would have been of a garden. It all started in a garden, and for many, it just seems right that all will eventually end in a garden. It seems more poetic.

And maybe it shouldn’t be. In Culture Making, author Andy Crouch suggests a natural progression from the garden to the city. It’s based on the “cultural mandate” that God gives Adam and Eve: Create and cultivate. In the words of Genesis 1:28, be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it, have dominion. In other words, move forward. Just as God brought order out of nothingness (ex nihilo), humanity is to bring order out of created-ness.

In Genesis 1 and 2, God creates a world with no sin. It is a perfect paradise, a heavenly garden. Adam and Eve are connected intimately with each other, with God. They are given a mandate to multiply — to create, to cultivate, to care for the earth.

Then, in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve give independence from God a try. The results are world-changing. They’re disconnected from God. Their creation and cultivation are cursed and will now be frustrated. They’re removed from paradise, banished.

As Genesis moves on, we come to chapter 11:  Misguided city-building. People are living out their cultural mandate but instead with human pride, and not divine worship; “us,” “we” and “ourselves” are all over the text. Genesis starts in a perfect garden — with connection to God, connection to each other and a call to create. Ten chapters later, there’s independence from God and a tower in Babel.

So, is a city the best image?  What if God wants to turn all that around, and give us a new place?   The new Jerusalem is the redemption of Babel and Eden.

There are good relationships once again. God is in the center. Created goods — “the glory and honor of the nations” — are pouring into it as evidence of the goodness of human creation and cultivation.

Envisioning heaven as a garden would surely have honored God for his redemption and creative beauty. Everything would be restored to the way the Maker intended it in the beginning.

But John’s vision of heaven as a city is a reminder that we are a part of God’s creation, a creation that God over and over says is “good.”  God is telling us – through John – that we are “good,” and we are capable of great things.  And we shouldn’t have to think long to recall what good things we are capable of when it comes to cities. Think of a favorite city. God is saying that what we create can be good. And we can partner with God to accomplish that. We are given a mandate.

Even as we wait for the new Jerusalem, we are still given something to do until that day comes. We do not simply look forward to heaven, we are to bring it here.

Richard Rohr speaks of this. “Jesus talked much more about how to live on earth now than about how to get to heaven later. Show me where Jesus healed people for the next world. He healed their present entrapment and suffering in their bodies, not just their souls. But many Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, pushed the goal into the future, making religion into a petty reward/punishment system inside a frame of retributive justice. (The major prophets — and Jesus himself — teach restorative justice instead.) Once Christianity became a simplistic win/lose morality contest, we lost most of the practical, transformative power of the Gospel for the individual and for society.”

So, here is your homework for the week: Bring heaven to earth, especially now. That is what Jesus did. If heaven looks like a city and we are to pursue God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, then how do we live that here? How do we restore justice? How do we love our neighbor? How do we serve this city? How can we change this place? How can you become the church so that no one wants to leave?

The readings today speak of it. In the First Reading, Peter is encouraged to be open when it comes to those who are different, namely, the Gentiles. And make no distinctions.

The Psalmist sings of a creator God of the universe, all under his care.

And Jesus gives us the commandment, to love one another as we have been loved.

In The Good, Great Place, Ray Oldenburg argues that by suburbanizing, America has lost its value on locations that promote a casual, public life: cafés, bookstores, pubs, the bygone soda foundation, etc. He calls these types of environments a “third place,” meaning environments that “host the regular, voluntary, informal and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.”  I know I have experienced this when traveling in Europe, especially Paris.  The cafes are filled with people talking and laughing, drinking coffee. One travel writer even says that Parisians consider the café an extension of their homes. Now part of that is because homes are smaller, but still, the image is there. And it is not that far from us either. On television we see it. I think of Norm walking into Cheers, the Friends gathering at Central Park.

It can be closer to home. My dad would go for coffee nearly every morning to a local café, meets his fellow cronies, solves the issues of the day. Of course, he had to return the next day to start over. My mom had a group of friends who gathered for lunch.

So what kind of impact could we have? Yes, our schedules are busy; we are often isolated from our neighbors, but still, how can we work on being that place where people want to gather? How do we make St. John’s a “third place?” How do we bring heaven to earth?

While this is John’s vision, this holy city, a “third place,” Jesus led the way.  If you think about it, he was often in “third places,” and usually with the sinners.  He was in the marketplace, in the towns, by the seashore, sometimes in private homes. And the crowds followed him.

Heaven is a big, big topic. John describes it as a city, alive and bustling, where God is at the center. We are part of a city and while it is often hard to believe, God is in our midst. So while we wait, we are reminded to be a “little heaven” on earth, so that our cities and towns can be a place, just like CHEERS, where everybody knows your name.  Amen.

                                                                                    Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

May 8, 2022 -- Fourth Sunday of Easter
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

4th Sunday of Easter (Year C)
Acts 9
St. John’s, West Seneca
May 8, 2022

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

It is appropriate – on Mother’s day – that the First Reading tells of a woman,  a woman of skill, and a disciple as well. And she is the only woman named as a disciple in the book of Acts.

The woman before us is Dorcas, or Tabitha. She was a woman who knew how to sew, and skillfully. She was a devoted follower of Jesus who had heard his call to serve the poor by sewing garments for others. After she became ill and died, members of her community sent for the Peter to do what he could. Peter, or so we are told in Acts in the previous chapter, is nearby, in Lydda.

Did Dorcas' neighbors believe that Peter could restore her to life? Perhaps. We do know that Peter had a reputation as a miracle worker – they had heard of his healing another.

Peter arrives and all the widows are present, mourning, wailing. In that time, if a woman was a widow and had no son to provide for her, she would have had a difficult time, and so widows would most probably be poor. They showed Peter "tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made." And this most likely means that they were wearing the clothes that Dorcas had made for them. In other words, Dorcas was an important part of the community, a woman who contributed much to its well-being, a woman of generosity and because of that, was well-known. That is why they sent for Peter. Peter brings her back to life and restores her to the community that so needed her. No doubt they had been asking themselves what they would do without her. After all, this was a generous woman who made a difference in so many lives.

As for Dorcas, we know very little of her. When she became a follower of Jesus, learning his teachings, she didn’t have to look far when it came to discovering what she could do. She knew how to sew. She was excellent at it and enjoyed it. She saw the need in her community, namely, widows in need, and she began.

We're not told whether Dorcas had a husband or whether she was ever married, but it seems that she had some means of her own, some support. Her skill, coupled with her income, placed her in a position to see to the needs of these women who, because they were no longer attached to men, had no money to purchase materials to make clothing for themselves or their children. And, the more contact she had, the more need she saw, with food, or shelter, or simply conversation. This would not have gone unnoticed. And so, with her death, you can understand why the entire community was adrift.

In this season of Easter, this is where we come in, where the story of Dorcas connects to us. This is about resurrection life and how we can bring new life to our towns and churches. Dorcas stands as the example that when it comes to the call of God, there are some who may be called to something completely new, where new skills must be learned. But for most, the call is found where you already have skills and interests, something you are passionate about…like Dorcas.

Sewing is the craft of fastening or attaching material using stitches made with a needle and thread. I read that “in sewing, there are at least three things: the fabric, the stitches and the seams.” Dorcas was a person who tied up loose ends, who closed the seams together to make something whole. Dorcas attached fabric with stitching, but in doing her work, in exercising her gift, she managed to stitch together a community.

That is what our own individual gifts can do, if we use them for God. We knit ourselves together to create the whole. Paul does write about that in Ephesians, when he speaks of the church being “knit” together in love. That is what Dorcas is doing on her own, yes, and pouring it into the community, for those who need it most, for those who appreciate it most, for whom a garment was love.

As one theologian writes: “[Dorcas] stands … for all those unsung heroines who have got on with what they can do best and have done it to the glory of God. Had it not been for Peter, she might never have made it into the pages of the New Testament, and we have to assume that there were dozens in the early years, and thousands in later years, who, like her, lived their lives in faith and hope, bearing the sorrows of life no doubt as well as celebrating its joys, and finding in the small acts of service to others a fulfilment of the gospel within their own sphere, using traditional skills to the glory of God. Luke is right to draw our eyes down to the small-scale and immediate, in case we should ever forget that these are the people who form the heart of the church, while the apostles and evangelists go about making important decisions, getting locked up, stoned or shipwrecked, preaching great sermons, writing great letters, and generally being great and good all over the place. I am privileged to know plenty of Dorcases. The day before I wrote this I met one whose speciality is chocolate truffles. When I meet such people I greet them as what they are, the beating heart of the people of God.”
—N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-12 (SPCK, 2008), 154-55.

No truer words are out there. How many have there been, simply going alone, living lives of faith and trust, giving generously, never being named, but who are the heart of any community.

When I was first at Holy Trinity, I remember a conversation with Charlie Bang in which he gave me advice. “Find out who makes the best brownies,” he said, joking, of course. But was he? In other words, who is a Dorcas here and what is her -his- skill?

Who is the best with a needle and thread?
Who makes the best cake?
Who are the unsung musicians here…pun, intended.
Who has a green thumb?
Who is a woodworker and just knows how to put things together?
Who is a writer, or an artist?
Who has imagination?
Who will pray?
Who will make a phone call or two?
Who has the best grammar and can proof the Pastor’s sermons before they go on the website?
Who is the best devil’s advocate?
Who can listen without judgement?
The list goes on and on.

The point is this. The heart and soul of the church are those who use their skills, all while living out the gospel. A church is a living organism filled with many moveable parts and any number of gifts.

A woman named Bea Salazar wrote: “In 1990, I had undergone back surgery and was on disability. I was depressed and just trying to get through each day. One afternoon, when I was putting out the trash, I saw a little boy digging in a dumpster for food. I took him inside, made him a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, and sent him home. Fifteen minutes later, there was a knock at my door, and I opened it to find six more kids standing there. ‘Is it true that you're giving away peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches?’ one of them asked.

"I couldn't believe that there was no one caring for these kids. It was summer, and school was out. They told me that their parents had to work. The next day, more children showed up, and more arrived the day after that.

"When school began again, kids came and asked for help with homework. Volunteers and supplies from local churches and schools poured in. My landlord donated an apartment, and soon I had 100 children coming to visit each day. Ten years later, five of the kids have begun community college.

"I never thought that making one peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich would grow into something that would affect so many lives - especially mine. Those kids pulled me out of myself. There was a point when I stopped thinking about my own pain and started concentrating on somebody else's. It's true that when you help others, you help yourself.”

It can be anyone, a seamstress or someone recovering from surgery, with any skill. We have so much work to do, but it can and will be done if we follow Jesus, one garment at a time, or even one peanut butter and jelly sandwich at a time. Amen.

                                                                                 Soli Deo Gloria

May 1, 2022 -- Third Sunday of Easter
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

Third Sunday of Easter (Year C)
Psalm 30, Acts, John
St. John’s, West Seneca
May 1, 2022 

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

My sister and I were exploring one summer, visiting churches and other sites. We came across one lovely church, and just down the road was the original building, built in the 19th century. We entered this small place and began reflecting on just how tiny it was. We had seen other pioneer cabins, and again, talked about the size, with a room or two, a window, maybe two, a fireplace, sometimes a loft for sleeping. And sparsely furnished as well. Thinking of the long winters in Minnesota, we asked ourselves, as many do now… What did people do when night set in? Yes, there was candlelight, but especially in rural areas, it was truly dark.

So I was excited when I came upon information about how our ancestors passed the night. Unlike us, they did not have the luxury of just flipping on a switch and behold - there is light. Think of it, from dusk to dawn in near total darkness.

And just like us, there was a fear of the dark. Darkness was associated with bad things, even evil. With so little light, night was something to fear, and it was considered the realm of the devil. So, again…how did people handle the long nights that could last up to 14 hours…no electricity, no television. Chores would be finished, supper eaten, maybe some reading by candlelight. But once the candle burned down, as well as the fire, the night set in.

A. Roger Ekirch in his book At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, writes that our pre-industrial ancestors had a way of dealing with the long, dark night and it may even contain a clue for us should we suffer from insomnia and lack of sleep, a side effect of living in this fast-paced, light filled world. Most of you have experienced this scenario. We wake up in the middle of the night, we freak out, and then we count the hours and the minutes, calculating, if I fall asleep now, I will still get this many hours of sleep. An hour later, you’re thinking the same thing. But for our ancestors, waking up was not a cause for stress or restlessness. They expected it.

Ekirch reveals that people, before the advent of streetlights and the factory night shift, experienced what he calls "segmented sleep." There was "first sleep" that took place between bedtime and about midnight and then a "second sleep" that lasted until dawn. In between, people would get up, tend the fire, maybe have a smoke or a drink. Some would lie in bed; some would read, talk, or pray. Prayer books dated to the 15th century included prayers for the period between first and second sleep.

There was an advantage to this segmented sleep in that people had a prescribed time during the night to reflect on the events of the previous day and perhaps even plan for the next. Ekirch found that in many historical accounts, the period between first and second sleep gave people an opportunity to reflect on their dreams. Rather than waking up in a panic and lamenting the loss of sleep, our ancestors found the middle of the night a good time to consider their lives and their relationships, especially their relationship with God.

To us today, the sunset means very little. We can still do what we want. When it grows too dark to read, just reach over and turn on the lamp. It's that easy. Even activities are no longer restricted to daylight hours, because, you know, even the lights eventually went on at Wrigley Field, August 8, 1988.

Darkness meant something very different to people of earlier generations. It meant a daily, enforced limitation on human activity. Those days may be gone, but still, the pressures and anxieties of life are not. There are those times that keep us up at night, when our sleep pattern is broken up.

Psalm 30 is a favorite of mine and could have been written in the middle of the night and I recommend it. The superscription says it is “Thanksgiving for Recovery from Grave Illness; A Song at the dedication of the temple." From my reading, it seems to have been written by someone who understood the dark night of the soul, yet also experienced God’s faithfulness and love in the midst of recovery from a grave illness, or a troubled time, maybe even a pandemic. It is a most comforting Psalm, and two verses always move me. There is the second part of verse 5: Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning; and verse 11, You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.

So, should you find yourself awake in the night, fretting about whatever has consumed your thoughts, read Psalm 30 and remember these two things.

First, God is present, always. The first words: "I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me" It is a prayer of thanksgiving, reminding us that God knows our needs, has heard our anguish, and answered and reached out with healing.

One of the great fears that tends to grip us at night is that we're all alone in our thoughts and despair. The first great stress reliever for that time between waking and falling back to sleep is to remember that that God has been watching over us and is the first to hear our cries for help, even if they're silent ones. The bedtime prayer I learned – "I pray the Lord my soul to keep” -- reminds us that the Lord "keeps" our souls and knows our pain before we say it. Knowing that God is right at hand in the night is a good first thought upon waking. God is always waiting to hear our prayers and to respond with the assurance of his promises. God is always more ready to listen than we are to pray.

Secondly, there is the clarity that the morning brings. “Sleep on it” is an old saying and a wise one. We should remember that things tend to look better in the morning. The psalmist reflects on his situation in the night. He was once in "prosperity" and a "strong mountain", but the illness made him feel as though God had hidden his face. He remembered those long nights of crying out to God, "What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit?"

Things do look better in the morning. Just look at the Gospel for today. Consider the disciples, having been out all night with nothing to show for it. No doubt, they were discouraged, until they see a man on the shore, who tells them to put out the net again. What had been a long, frustrating night has turned into a new day, with a huge catch of fish, and breakfast waiting on the shore. As the Psalmist states: “You have turned my mourning into dancing;  you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.” Peter is so joyful, he jumps in and swims to shore.

And looking to the First Reading, while perhaps not morning, Paul suffered through the dark night as well. A proud man, threatening the people of the Way, he is overtaken not by the dark, but by a light on the road to Damascus. Then he is left in the dark, his eyesight gone, being led by his companions. He is in a “dark night of the soul” of his own, no doubt reflecting on this this change of events, what he has been and what he is now to be.

And let us not forget Ananias, who has heard of Paul, and is none too certain about this news that is brought to him in a vision. No doubt he was filled with anxiety. But he goes to the street called Straight, and there lays his hands on Paul. And…Paul’s darkness is turned to light, as something like scales fell from his eyes. No doubt Ananias experienced a moment of light and joy as well.

We may not live as our ancestors did, but life is life and each new development brings something with it that will tax our energy and rob us of sleep, causing needless anxiety. Needless, because of our faithful and generous God who is with us wherever we go, in the darkest night, on the sea, or on the road to Damascus. We are not alone. The Psalmist reminds us that weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. And that our mourning will be turned into dancing, and we need only look to the empty tomb to see that. Amen.

                                                                                Soli Deo Gloria

Aprill 24, 2022 -- Second Sunday of Easter
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

2 Easter (Year C)
Luke
St. John’s, West Seneca
April 24, 2022

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

She had just been published and was filled with anxiety and doubt. She said: “I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement.” More than 30 million copies of her book have since been sold. It has been translated into 40 languages. The book is To Kill a Mockingbird. The author is Harper Lee. “How did she even go through with the publication process, when she had such doubts?”

Perhaps the question today might be: How do we go on discipling when there are days when doubts consume us?

We have the answer in Thomas, one of the twelve. Of course, we know him by his nickname – Doubting Thomas. Yes, it’s a label that has been fixed to his name for all time, coming from the 20th chapter of John.

Thomas isn’t a doubter as much as he wants the truth, which is something all of us should be looking for. You will notice that he doesn’t dismiss the idea that Jesus is alive, has been resurrected…not at all. He, like so many of us, wants evidence. He had not been there for Jesus's first appearance, again, John leaves us in the dark as to the reason. What Thomas wants is the same experience that the other disciples had.

And then, the opportunity comes. John says the same thing happened; the door is locked, and yet there is Jesus. And he knows what Thomas is thinking and offers him the chance: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

By the way, Jesus does not refer to Thomas as a doubter. It’s not an adjective that Jesus uses. And, it should be noted that Thomas’s doubts are not about the resurrection of Jesus, but rather the reports that He is alive. When he saw Jesus, he had no doubt that Jesus was alive. What he had been skeptical of was the truth of what he was hearing.

And, Jesus does not indicate that Thomas has a problem with belief. He simply says “do not doubt…” And that well-known verse “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” It is directed to all of them, and I would add…us. They believed that Jesus was alive only because they saw Jesus in the flesh. And like Thomas, they did not believe the reports of Jesus’ resurrection either. Luke reports that the disciples thought it was an “idle tale.” Thomas may not have believed the report of the disciples, but neither did they. They were all doubters, and their doubt was only suspended when they saw Jesus alive with their own eyes.

What is it about doubt that gets people so nervous? We often call Thomas a “doubter,” but the truth is that we all need a Thomas in our life and in our community, someone who is willing to push back on what, at times, seems too good to be true, or just crazy.

We need a voice to question a bit, to challenge our assumptions, to disrupt our expectations, especially when it comes to faith.  Too often we are content to let our faith become a matter of Sunday morning services. For the balance of the week, the rest of our energies dissolve into schedules, deadlines, household demands…etc…

The people in the Bible are not always so believing. Abraham was incredulous and Sarah hysterical with doubt when God promised them a son in their old age. Jonah's faith was so filled with doubt that he tried to run away from his mission to Nineveh. Jesus' disciples were constantly doubting. And not just Thomas either.  Despite the fact that they were witnesses to the remarkable powers Jesus commanded, they still panicked. When Jesus was napping through a storm at sea, they cried out: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing? Luke records that after the resurrection these same disciples "disbelieved for joy and wonder."  Jesus himself, the incarnation of faithfulness, cried out on the cross in doubt, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

It is exactly because Jesus provides us with the greatest example of faith that doubt is expected. It has been said, a faith that does not doubt is a dead faith. The mark of great faith is a great struggle to get it, keep it, share it. The early church found power and comfort in the image of a doubt-riddled Jesus praying in the Gethsemane Garden for the cup to pass from him. One of the ancient church's legends teaches that doubt increases in power as saints of God increase in saintliness.

True doubts grow naturally out of true faith. And the existence of God is just not provable, like some mathematical problem. Theologian Richard John Neuhaus points out that we use "the term 'believer' to describe a person who is persuaded of the reality of God. The alternative to being a believer, of course, is to be a knower.”

Neuhaus recalls his friend Sidney Hook, a confessed atheist who should be more accurately defined as a "philosophical agnostic." Hook based his rejection of God on this dichotomy of believing/knowing. When asked what he would say when he died and God asked him why he didn't believe, Hook routinely replied, "I would say, 'Lord, you didn't supply enough evidence."'

Other great people agree. Immanuel Kant warned that doubt is a place of rest, not a place of residence. So do not live there. Doubt calls us to action, not to anxiety. There is a difference between doubting and disenchantment, between wrestling with faith and flinging faith to the winds.

Honest doubts and wild questions are not to be suppressed.  Thomas voiced his doubts about Jesus' miraculous return. But he continued to remain in the midst of the company of the disciples. And perhaps the best instance of doubt and faith at one time is when Jesus healed the demon-possessed child in Mark, the overjoyed father exclaimed, "I believe, help my unbelief." Faith lives hand in hand with doubt by continuing to worship God, by continuing to pray to God, despite doubt's presence.

There is the story of a young girl who asked her Sunday School teacher questions, only to be told me that it was wrong to ask questions and have doubts. So she asked yet another question: “Is God afraid of my questions and doubts?” She said she came to realize that God was not afraid but her teacher sure was.

You do not have to fear doubt.  Thomas voiced his serious doubts about Jesus' miraculous return. But he continued to remain in the midst of the company of the disciples.

Don't let your doubts put a damper on your faith. Let doubts open the channels in new and fresh directions as they have never been opened before. Pray to God, "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief." Do like Thomas. In the midst of doubt, reach out and touch somebody's hand, and be amazed at the presence of God.

John's Gospel identifies Thomas as "the twin." Let’s play with that word; doubt being the “twin” of faith. Thomas' twin is found in each of us, if we are truly faithful. Jesus' words from the cross speak a message to all us twins - "Dare to doubt, but reach out and touch." Find out for yourself just how right Augustine was when he declared "A man doubts, therefore God is." Amen.

                                                                              Soli Deo Gloria

April 17, 2022 -- Easter Sunday
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

Easter
Luke 24: 1-12
April 17, 2022
St. John’s, West Seneca 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Risen Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

In the movie FORREST GUMP, he speaks of what he remembers and how it’s funny what a man remembers. He can’t remember his first birthday, but he does remember the first time he heard the sweetest voice in the whole world. That’s when on his first day of school, when nobody on that bus would let him sit next to them, Jenny offered.

I’ve thought of that line often. It’s funny what you remember, isn’t it?  Sometimes it is just a detail or two, burned in your memory.  And it is amazing how quickly you can call it to mind, re-live it again, and experience that same old feeling, good or bad.

Think of your memories for a moment.  I recall one morning when I was about 10 or so.  It was winter, a cold morning in Minnesota, and I woke up early, as I always did, and still do. I lay there in the warmth of my bed, listening to the sound of my mom and dad’s voices, murmuring in the kitchen.  WCCO, an AM station in Minneapolis, would sign on at about 5:50 with this incredibly corny wakeup song, where the two DJ’s would say “Good morning!” to a few of the towns in the state. One morning, I even heard them say: Good Morning, New London!  Good morning, Spicer!  What I remember is this one thing about those mornings.  Mom and Dad were up and about, talking about whatever grownups talk about; and soon after, mom would soon start getting us up for school, and dad would go to the barn for the morning milking.  I think Dad had the easier job.  And I would lie there, listening to the radio and my parents’ voices, knowing that all was well with the world.  WCCO was on, and my parents were getting ready for another day.  The best thing about this memory is that I can call it to mind on those occasions when I despair that all is wrong with the world, remembering that there were times – indeed – when all seemed right.

To this day I have crystal clear memories, while other memories, that others remember clearly, too clearly, are lost to me.

Speaking of remembering, a pastor wrote: “What really struck me in reading the text was the notion of remembering. The women did not expect to find signs of life at the tomb, but, as the two men remind the women, they would have expected this if they had remembered what Jesus told them. As we look at the world around us, what are we called to remember about what Jesus told us? Where can we expect to find life?” (--Rev. Kevin A. Bowers, Bethany Presbyterian Church, Lafayette, Indiana)

I speak of memory because our memories can become so clouded with busy-ness, or worry, or grief that we forget that we might have indeed, forgotten something.

Could those women have remembered?  It has been a terrible few days, and the Friday had brought only despair and death.

After the day of preparation, the busy-ness of the Passover and the Sabbath, Luke tells us that the women came to the tomb, at early dawn. The only thing they knew is that they were going to anoint the body, an ancient task. It was to be a heartbreaking errand for them. They were not expecting anything that remotely resembled life, not in a garden of tombs.  That's why they came with spices that morning. You didn't bring those along unless you were expecting to find death amid the stones. Jewish burial rites at the time meant anointing the body with spices to hasten decomposition and cut down the smell. Then, a year later, they came back among the rocks and gathered the remaining bones. They put them in a stone box called an ossuary, and then put the box in a niche in the back of the tomb. The same tomb would be used in the same way many times.

Except that when they arrived, they found that the stone had been rolled away, no doubt giving them a momentary sigh of relief.  But that relief turned to surprise when they entered the tomb and found that Jesus’ body was not there.

Luke notes that the women were “perplexed,” until, that is, two men suddenly appear, in dazzling clothing.  Their perplexity turns to terror and bowing their faces to the ground, they hear this question, asked of them: “’Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’  Then they remembered his words…”

They remembered his words.

Sometimes we have to be prodded to remember.  For the women that early morning, so grieved, so sad, it is not odd that they didn’t remember what Jesus had told them.  Their minds were clouded with sadness and confusion, and Jesus’ words simply did not connect.

The women were in shock, and who could blame them? Don’t the dead stay dead? Have you ever been greeted by a young man dressed in white, proclaiming the gospel? At any time? One linguist notes that: “People think in frames …. To be accepted, the truth must fit people’s frame. If facts do not fit the frame, the frame stays and facts bounce off.” If you are coming to anoint a dead body, news of a living person does not fit the frame. No wonder they were perplexed. No wonder they told “no one nothing.”

“That’s what Easter does. It reframes absolutely everything…”

We, too, are not so unlike those first women at the empty tomb.  We too need to remember and then reframe our lives. We too need to hear and re-hear “that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”  We too need that affirmation that death does not have the last word, that that tomb is indeed empty, just as Jesus said it would be.  God never forgets a promise.

Yes, we need to be reminded. What are memories anyway? And can we trust them?

Frederick Buechner writes that there are two ways of remembering.

“One way is to make an excursion from the living present into the dead past. The old sock remembers how things used to be when you and I were young…”

That is nostalgia, a seductive liar if ever there was one.

“The other way is to summon the dead past back into the living present.  The young widow remembers her husband, and he is there beside her.

When Jesus said, ‘Do this in remembrance of me’, he was not presenting a periodic slug of nostalgia.”

The story of the empty tomb is no mere bit of nostalgia.  Richard Rohr writes: “The Resurrection is not a one-time miracle that proved Jesus was God. Jesus’ death and resurrection name and reveal what is happening everywhere and all the time in God and in everything God creates. Reality is always moving toward resurrection. ...”

It is a living, breathing acknowledgment that no matter how bleak the world can be, no matter how sinful we are, no matter how awful a moment, God will find a way – has found a way – and will continue to find ways to bring new life, even from death.

This Easter morning, we can take this memory and bring it forward to us now, at this moment.  Just as I can remember an almost perfect time, so all of us can recall a perfect morning.  Jesus has risen, and while our world may be far from perfect, we can celebrate the fact that Jesus has been raised and new life is everywhere, and we are free to live as the people of God. It is time to reframe our lives with this new reality.  Easter is God’s great “yes!” to a world filled with bad memories, both past and in the making.  And all we need do is to hear the words:

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.  Remember how he told you while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again. Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told this to the eleven and all the rest.”

This morning, all Christians are hearing this story, and remembering.  Christ is risen from the dead.  Alleluia! He is risen!  Amen.

                                                                                 Soli Gloria Dei

* linguist George Lakoff, quoted in David John Seel Jr.’s book, The New Copernicans

April 14, 2022 -- Maundy Thursday
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

Maundy Thursday
St. John’s, West Seneca
April 14, 2022 

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

 All this Lent, I have been asking questions.

 Frederick Buechner speaks of Lent like this:

“Jesus went off alone into the wilderness, where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.
·   If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn't, which side would get your money and why?
·   When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?
·   If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less?
·   Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?
·   Is there any person in the world or any cause that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?
·   If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?”

That was on the First Sunday in Lent.

On the Second Sunday in Lent, I asked: Who do you imitate in daily life? Who are you watching? And who is watching you? Paul asked that of the church in Philippi, inviting them to join him in imitating Jesus.

Next, and straight from Isaiah, why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?

I had a break on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, when the parable of the Prodigal Son was proclaimed. I imagine that one of my questions would be: Who am I in that parable? Or Do we realize how extravagant God is?

And then, when Mary used that expensive oil and Judas questioned her motive, the question: is there every a time or place where wasting something is appropriate?

We are always looking for answers, are we not?  And yet, are not questions just as important?  I believe that at the very heart of Lent and the very soul of these Holy Week services lies in questions not only about who Jesus is and what he came to do, but questions about who we are and what we are going to do with this incredible gift.

And so now is the time to ask a very important question, and it's time to seek the answer. On the night when Jesus is the servant, and we are given the great commandment to love one another comes this question: What does God really want of you? Have you ever wondered? Perhaps you have heard the church – and me - talk about surrender and sacrifice. Do you understand what surrendering to God means?

In human terms, surrender means "give up" or "give in." Maybe you've surrendered to your friends' influences from time to time. You realize that God wants us to surrender as well. God wants us to surrender to his influence. When we do this, we don't lose: we can’t lose. When we "give up" control of our lives, God continues to shower His grace. You have been given very special and unique gifts, and God wants you to develop them.  You have hopes and dreams.  God wants you to tell him about them. God’s desire is that we trust His promises. God will work in your heart to bring focus to your dreams and hopes, showing you how to make the most of your spiritual gifts to their greatest potential.

Dag Hammarskjold said this: "I don't know who - or what - put the question. I don't know when it was put. I don't even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer 'Yes' to Someone - or Something - and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life in self-surrender had a goal."

Jesus himself has set the example and even asked the question, first of those gathered disciples and now of us.

“Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that your also should do as I have done to you.  Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

Don’t end the Lenten season by looking just for the answers. End by listening to that question: “Do you know what I have done to you?”

Because there are more questions coming…

“Are you the King of the Jews?”

“Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”

“What is truth?"

"You are not also one of his disciples, are you?"

And finally: “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

Speaking of questions, years ago a nationwide poll asked, "What word or phrase would you most like to hear uttered to you, sincerely?"

Can you guess the first thing people wanted to hear? You can probably guess.

"I love you."

The second was, "You are forgiven."

Number three, believe it or not, was, "Supper is ready." (With thanks to James A. Harnish, "Walking With Jesus: Forgiveness," Tampa, Fla., March 22, 1998.)

How long has it been since we have heard these words spoken to us?

"I love you" -- God's unconditional love.

"You are forgiven" -- God's unmerited grace.

"Supper is ready" -- God's unsurpassed invitation.

We hear those words each time we come to this table, no questions asked.

We are loved by a God who sent His own Son.

We are forgiven.

And, not only is supper ready, it is always ready, always available.

                                                                               Soli Deo Gloria

April 3, 2022 -- Fifth Sunday in Lent
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

5 Lent (Year C)
John 12: 1-8
St. John’s, West Seneca
April 3, 2022

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

Is there ever a time or place where wasting something is appropriate?  The question of “wasting,” is important; all too often, I know that I think of all I waste, not intentionally, of course.  But consider the food we waste, or the gadgets we can buy so we won’t waste time. But a good thing?

It would appear so.  Here we are, late in Lent, one week before Palm Sunday, and I come to our gospel reading. Jesus, in the last days of his life, is in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, sitting at the table. Mary takes a pound of “costly perfume made of pure nard,” which was a fragrant, imported oil. We soon learn from Judas’ remark that the jar could have been sold for 300 denarii, which was nearly a year’s pay for a working man. But Mary “wastes” it, pouring it on Jesus’ feet.

Now, it was not uncommon in those days to anoint the head of a guest as a sign of respect, but in those cases, only a few drops of oil would normally be used. The pouring of lavish amounts of oil — again, on the head — was the kind of anointing that was considered sacred, and it was usually reserved for designating someone as a king or priest. The anointing marked that person for divine service.  As a side note, “Anointed” is the English equivalent of the Hebrew word meshiah (messiah) and the Greek word christos (Christ).  So while we have no way of knowing exactly what Mary was thinking, her action expresses more than a simple respect for Jesus; it seems to express her conviction that Jesus is the promised Messiah. But perhaps she poured the oil on his feet because she didn’t consider herself worthy to anoint his head.

But while a lovely and extravagant act, one person at the table does not see it that way.  Judas Iscariot is there, and he sees Mary’s action as neither a sign of respect for Jesus nor a declaration of his being the “anointed one.”  He sees only waste, and questions why the perfume wasn’t sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor.

Jesus, however, rises to Mary’s defense, saying her act is “for the day of my burial.” Anointing the dead was a common burial practice in that time, but Jesus, who knows what is coming, accepted this anointing as an act before the fact. As far as Jesus is concerned, Mary’s gift is one of extravagant love, not of wasted perfume.

Jesus also responds to Judas’ statement that the poor could have benefited from the sale of the ointment. He remarks that there are always poor people to be helped, but there is an undertone here. “Yes, this perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor, but would it have? If you had an extra 300 denarii in your hands right now, would you give it to the poor? Is that really where it would end up?” A good question for us, as well.

Jesus challenges Judas’ assumption – and perhaps ours - that the perfume — and Mary’s act — was wasted.  Jesus was likely aware that most people resist waste. That is true yet today.  We too often think of what we have wasted rather than what we have received.  We give a child an expensive toy for Christmas, and he has a wonderful time playing with ... the box the toy came in. Rather than rejoicing in the child’s pleasure, we’re bothered that the toy itself is unloved. What a waste, we think, even if we don’t say it. We could have just brought him an empty box. We have similar reactions to leftover food, and to clothing being thrown into the wash after being worn for only an hour.

Now, I certainly don’t want to encourage waste, but Mary’s anointing of Jesus suggests that we may need to rethink – and re-imagine - what extravagances are really wasteful. Over the years, I’ve heard of a few. For example:

• You hear about some exceptionally talented young adult who has potential and opportunities in many fields but who decides to work at an inner-city mission, and you think, “What a waste of all that talent.”
• You know of an attractive, smart, genial person who has chosen to remain single, or who marries but chooses not to have children. “Too bad,” you think. “He/ She would have made such a good parent.”
• You learn of a young person who has been offered a full-ride scholarship at a prestigious university. But she decides to go instead to a local college where she has no scholarship so she can live at home with her mother, who isn’t well and has no other family.

Are those examples about wasting, or are they something else? In the end, this telling of Mary and her perfume challenges us, summons us to think broadly about that which we are quick to label “wasted” — wasted time, wasted effort, wasted talent, wasted money, wasted commitment, wasted life. Some of those things may indeed be true squanderings, but we can’t always be sure. Waste, perhaps, can only be rightly identified based on whatever comes next. Sometimes what is “wasted” changes the world — or at least us — for the better.

Mary reminds us that some of those things we’re quick to call wasted surely are not. Instead, they’re wonderful gifts of great extravagance, poured on us by love itself.  This costly perfume and Mary’s gesture of anointing Jesus was missed by the disciples, and certainly by Judas.   And what is remarkable is that they missed the obvious. What was the purpose of that oil? To anoint a king and prepare the body for burial.  It is as if she knows not only who Jesus is, but what the future will hold.

That expensive ointment is used by Mary for a paradoxical manner, combining the contrasting emotions of love and death.  She takes the perfume so prized, so costly, so extravagant  and uses it precisely for the correct ritual reasons: to anoint a king, and to prepare the body for burial. Perhaps she does not fully understand what she is doing, but she performs an act of love and kindness. She does what she wants with what she possesses and owns.

She has done a beautiful thing, a right thing, but the rightness is of a different order. Of course the money could have been used for the poor, yet good deeds without love are oddly empty. To give to the poor while refusing to assist and comfort the one next to you is as wrong as ignoring the world to concentrate on personal concerns.  It is all in the timing, isn’t it?

Do we understand the timing of this gesture? Do we understand the emptying of self and possession that this woman personifies? Think for a minute when you hear of a beloved family member or friend is in the hospital.  What do you do?  You buy flowers; almost always expensive, and certainly extravagant.  Why? Perhaps because in a moment we – you and I – understand the fragility of life, and desire nothing more than to give something beautiful, something bright for the hospital room.

This text defies all logic and common sense; for who would take what was worth a year’s wages and simply pour it on Jesus’ feet?  She could have sold it and used the money for herself.  Who would?  No one, if you thought about it.

This story also contrasts two very different ways of discipleship; it is a study in contrast. “One person is lavish with her gifts; the other is parsimonious and critical. One expresses her devotion openly and earnestly; the other is guarded and treacherous. One loves; the other betrays.”   And all this is done in front of those disciples who have given up their occupations; that alone is extravagant. You may remember that they had seen much extravagant giving, as when the widow put in her last penny in the offering.

But…selfless love, extravagant love, as Mary knows, as the disciples know, does not consider the cost; it considers the outcome.  If Mary had counted the cost, she may indeed have sold that precious, expensive oil. But she did not. She considered the one who loved her. And it was not wasted. When we find ourselves in an act of selfless love, an act of kindness, a moment of compassion, the cost is just not important.

How might we live a life of lavish discipleship? How can we be more generous hosts, more extravagant in our giving? How can we be a little Christ to all we meet?

We model ourselves on what God does each and every day.  God is extravagant, and so our actions should be as well.  Our God, our God looks at the creation and sees that it was good, just as Mary saw the good.  God, in a selfless love, has destroyed the power of sin and death.

As we come next week to the holiest of weeks, we will see that God does not consider the cost. And neither should we. Amen.

                                                                               Soli Deo Gloria

 

March 20, 2022 -- Third Sunday in Lent
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

Third Sunday in Lent (Year C)
Luke 13:1-8, Isaiah 55
St. John’s, West Seneca
March 20, 2022 

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

I have been asking questions this Lenten season. Two weeks ago, I ran through that list from Frederick Buechner about what is important in life. I won’t go through them again, but basically, those questions ask you who you are, who you love, and what is most important in this precious thing we call life.

Last week, I asked who you imitated, and of course, who is imitating you?

This week I turn to Isaiah’s 55th chapter, arguably one of the most beautiful chapters in all Scripture. We are invited to come to the waters, and to buy, even if we have no money. Our gracious God is at it again. From God and the prophet comes the question:
Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?

Through the prophet, God sees our poverty even as God did then; that we are hungry and thirsty in spite of all we have. Could it be that we are more like the people of Isaiah’s time than we are willing to admit? Why are we poor? Or if not poor, why do so many of us have that nagging feeling – in the middle of the night – that there must be something more?

Maybe our hunger isn’t really hunger. Rather, we spend our money, not on bread, or other groceries. We spend on the wrong things, and we work for those things that bring us only momentary satisfaction.

And lest we forget, not to make light of this, there are those who have true budgeting issues. The money comes in and is immediately gone. However, many times, we are far too often caught up in meaningless spending. Too often, we purchase things – usually high ticket items – when we know that we don’t really need it and we could use the money somewhere else. And too often, we feel buyers’ remorse. We can’t get that nagging feeling out of our head. We have all done it. Other times, we enjoy it for a while, only to forget about it. Then it gathers dust.

And it’s not just about dollars and cents. There are other types of currency. We also squander our time and talents as well. Where does our time go? We get home, relax a bit and it’s on to other things, reading or playing a game of Crossword, or catching up on social media. Before you know it, you’ve gone down the rabbit hole, catching the title of some provocative article that takes you from page to page. And then, you never get the answer, or, it turns out to be far different from what you thought. Or you decide to take just one more quiz.  How are we spending the currency of time?

And then, there is the currency of talent. What talents and skills do we have that somehow just never get used?

Isaiah is not just asking about food here. So again, why do we believe there needs to be more? Why does life seem so empty when God is inviting us to the banquet?

And then comes the next question, why do we work for “that which does not satisfy?”

And while there are many options out there, not all of us can work in the same way.
“Not everyone can sign up for the Peace Corps…
Not everyone can be teachers, doctors or nurses.
Not everyone can be in fulltime religious ministry.”

We work in all sorts of places, factories, offices or cubicles. Some work with the highway department, or in the service industry. Others work from home, some on farms, you name it. But any work, from the fields to hospitals to the courts, is honorable.

And there are plenty of jobs out there that are illegal or unethical. We need to stay away from those.

The question here is, why do we believe that our work has no meaning? What God wants is for us to work and see the hand of God in the job we have. Experience fulfillment now, doing what you do now. What God desires is that we know there is always more than the task at hand.

As Lutherans, we should know that better than anyone. Martin Luther taught that all Christians have callings or vocations, and that they are equal. Before that, it was the clergy who held the higher ground. Luther believed that our jobs differ only in function. This was good news to the world, especially if you believed that you were “just a…”. That is one of my pet peeves.

Because when our work has meaning, we serve the neighbor. Ordinary work is no longer ordinary when it is a calling. Work is no longer simply a job or occupation. It is a call from God. Vocation is also where the Spirit enters in, sanctifying our lives, so that we don’t get caught up in the worldly issues, but rather in humble service to our neighbor. Just as now, Luther did believe that there were some occupations that were off-limits to Christians, but still, he accepted most worldly jobs as useful to the neighbor. Luther believed that the one who made the beer was as important as the priest.

Part of our frustration is that we don’t see God’s hand at work. Or we simply are not looking or even listening. We do get caught up in the tasks at hand. And yet I receive referrals from the environmental staff when they’ve noticed that a patient is upset. So, next time you are at work, if you have a moment or two, ask yourself this:
Is there someone here who might need prayer?
Is there someone who needs a word of encouragement?
Is there no pleasure in knowing that we are giving our best and that our employers trust us because we have integrity?
Our work must have a deeper, spiritual meaning, or we will continue to wake up with that nagging feeling. If we cannot find meaning, the future is truly depressing.

We all know of those who seem to have it all, but don’t. People who have a great job, and are unfulfilled and lonely.

In the first Harry Potter book, our young hero discovers one night, as he is wandering through Hogwarts, a mysterious mirror. When he looks at his image, he sees many people: his father and mother, relatives. Excited about this, the next night he takes Ron to show him his family, but Ron sees something else entirely. He sees himself as Head Boy. Harry returns a third time just to look at his family who are somehow in that mirror. Of course, Dumbledore catches him, telling him that this is the Mirror of Erised and asking him if he understands what the mirror reflects. Dumbledore explains.

“…The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is. Does that help?”
Harry thought. Then he said slowly, ‘It shows us what we want... whatever we want...’
‘Yes and no,’ said Dumbledore quietly.
‘It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. You, who have never known your family, see them standing around you. Ronald Weasley, who has always been overshadowed by his brothers, sees himself standing alone, the best of all of them. However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.’”

What is your greatest desire, your deepest hope? What would you see in the Mirror of Erised? By the way Erised is “desire” spelled backwards.

God is asking us to come to the feast, enjoy, without money and without cost. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”

In Lent, I have been asking questions, not only of you, but also of myself. It all comes down to knowing whose you are and who you are following. With God, we know abundance, even to the sending of His Son, who will lead us so we may be free of all the earthly trappings that constantly lure us away from God.

These questions are not answered in a day, and for many of us, it will take a lifetime. And we can continue to work on these things because we know how patient God is. In the Gospel reading, it is the gardener who wants to take time with the tree that bears no fruit, rather than just cutting it down.

“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”

Lent comes around yearly to remind us that there is but one thing we should desire and treasure, and that is God. God sends his Son that we may listen and be satisfied. And then when we look into the mirror, we will see only the person that God created and loves. Amen.

                                                                                    Soli Deo Gloria

March 13, 2022 -- Second Sunday in Lent
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

2 Lent (Year C)
Philippians 
St. John’s, West Seneca
March 13, 2022

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

“Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ…

M. Scott Peck, in one of his books, tells of a conference where he and Harvey Cox both spoke.

“[Cox] told the story of Jesus' being called to resuscitate the daughter of a wealthy Roman. As Jesus is going to the Roman's house, a woman who has been hemorrhaging for years reaches out from the crowd and touches his robe. He feels her touch and turns around and asks, ‘Who touched me?’ The woman comes forward and begs him to cure her and he does, and then goes on to the house of the Roman whose daughter had died.

"After telling the story, Cox asked this audience of 600 mostly Christian professionals whom they identified with. When he asked who identified with the bleeding woman, about a hundred raised their hands. When he asked who identified with the anxious Roman father, more of the rest raised their hands. When he asked who identified with the curious crowd, most raised their hands. But when he asked who identified with Jesus, only six people raised their hands.”

Peck goes on to say: “Something is very wrong here. Of 600 more or less professional Christians, only one out of a hundred identified with Jesus. Maybe more actually did but were afraid to raise their hands lest that seem arrogant. But again, something is wrong with our concept of Christianity if it seems arrogant to identify with Jesus. That is exactly what we are supposed to do! We're supposed to identify with Jesus, act like Jesus, be like Jesus. That is what Christianity is supposed to be about -- the imitation of Christ.”

So, turning to the Philippians text, Paul is asking us to imitate Jesus. Now, at first, it may seem that what Paul is asking us to do is a bit conceited, that we should imitate him. As always with Scripture, reading around the verses is helpful. In the previous verses, Paul writes: "press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus" (v. 14). Many scholars argue that we are not to imitate the actions of Paul, but rather, that Paul is asking us to “be imitators with me. Stick with me, as the Message says.

“The next part of what Paul says in verse 17 – ‘Observe those who live according to the example you have in us’ -- is Paul’s way of saying that those Christians who are mature in the faith are being noticed as having something distinctive about them, and authenticity that cannot be faked.  Those people, including himself, Paul says, can be examples for other Christians to follow -- those who, perhaps, are not as mature in Christ.”

Now, let’s not push that idea too far; we Christians may have a “look,” but we are not physically different from one another.

And yet, what is Paul getting at? Three words come to mind in this discussion of "the look" and Paul's invitation to "imitate" him. They are: imitation, impression and impersonation. Are we imitating Jesus? What is the difference?

Let’s start with impressions. Comedians often do "impressions." I can’t help but think of SNL.  This involves mimicking a famous person’s voice, their mannerisms, their clothing.

Then there is impersonation. Today it has a negative connotation, and if you have seen Netflix’s Inventing Anna, you will understand that it is not positive at all and usually involves underhanded and fraudulent behavior.

So what are we doing? Are we just doing impressions of Jesus, using His words? We don’t really know what Jesus looked like, but we do know what he said. Please tell me you are not impersonating Jesus, as that could be dangerous. And yet, we need to be aware, as Jesus did say that many would come and say “I am he.”

No, we are to imitate, always seeking to be like Jesus. Now please, I am not saying you can turn water into wine, or heal the sick, but you can emulate His compassion, his love for others, especially those on the margins, his love of God.

And it isn’t as hard as you might think because we do it all the time. Paul knew this. We imitate others as we relate to the world around us. After all, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Imitation is how we learn to be human at every level. We learn to speak by hearing and then imitating our parents. We learn to walk by watching our older brothers or sisters. As we grow, we usually have a group of friends and we tend to imitate each other, continuing in college. When we settle into a trade or profession, we certainly look to others to follow their example.

Many of the things we conform to are innocent, such as our accents or the way we hold a fork. But others have lasting ramifications. Our work ethic, our attitudes toward family and friends, and even our church attendance are things we pick up from others. But beware: cruel and unkind actions can be imitated as well.

We are what we imitate. And each of us has our own history, our own specific group of people, past and present. We conform to the image of others, and others, right now, are conforming to us.

Paul is giving us our marching orders. He has offered it before, in other letters to other churches. Paul writes: “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” In other words, there is nothing new under the sun. We do not have to be innovators, or re-invent the wheel, especially when it comes to faithful behavior. We need only remember whose we are.

No, Paul understands human behavior and asks that we imitate the way of Jesus. It’s who we are and if we are going to do anything, we are to imitate and follow Jesus. That is how the church grew, as the early Christians were noticed for their love.

So, who are you following? Who do you imitate in daily life? Who are you watching? Who are you learning from so that you may grow in your faith, to become spiritually mature? Is it a family member, a good friend, a co-worker who always lifts others up, is it someone here?

And then comes this question. Who is watching you and imitating you? And it goes well beyond the home. It goes into the office, into school, when out shopping, on the drive to work. Remember that song from the 70’s: They’ll know we are Christians by our love? Do others know you are a follower of Jesus. Do they see your actions and hear your words and know, instinctively, that you are Christian?  Who is learning from you? Another question for this season of Lent.

Get back to my example. Jesus has been asked to resuscitate the daughter of a wealthy Roman. As Jesus is going to the Roman's house, a woman who has been hemorrhaging for years reaches out from the crowd and touches his robe. He feels her touch and turns around and asks, ‘Who touched me?’ The woman comes forward and begs him to cure her and he does, and then goes on to the house of the Roman whose daughter had died.

Who do you imitate in that story? Do you respond with love and compassion, not just going, but then when interrupted as Jesus was, responding again with love? Because that is what it means to imitate Jesus. In Lent, we are walking with Him to the cross, so if think you may have some repairs to make, now is the time. Today Jesus speaks his mind, mourning over Jerusalem and desiring nothing more than to gather his children, as a mother hen gathers her chicks. And he will continue to press on today and tomorrow and the next day.

The disciples followed; the crowds followed; Paul followed, all imitating Jesus. We are asked to go and do the same. Amen.

                                                                                 Soli Deo Gloria

March 6, 2022 -- First Sunday in Lent
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

First Sunday in Lent (Year C)
Luke 4:1-13
St. John’s, West Seneca
March 6, 2022

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

In his book The Road to Character, David Brooks tells the story of Augustine, the fourth-century theologian. I’ve spoken of him earlier this year, certainly an unlikely candidate for disciple. Augustine deeply desired fame and status, but found that these things didn't make him happy. Nothing he was accomplishing as a philosopher was giving him the contentment he desired.

"Left to ourselves, we often desire the wrong things," writes Brooks. "Whether it's around the dessert tray or in the late-night bar, we know we should choose one thing but end up choosing another." We understand our long-term interest but end up pursuing short-term pleasures. Even good things such as friendship will leave us unsatisfied if the friendship is not attached to something higher.

In the end, Augustine turned to God and said, "Our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee." Nothing in this world will give us the rest and the peace that only God can give.

Today we come to the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Here Luke and Matthew agree as to what this was all about, whereas Mark -in typical Mark fashion- gives it a line or two.

But taking Brooks' idea that what we desire must be attached to something higher, I know that the temptations that come along are often far too temporary and leave us feeling empty. There is no attachment to a greater thing.

Each year, for the first Sunday of Lent, we have Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. That we have this goes a long way in commenting on our flawed and oh, so gullible, human nature.

Nevertheless, here we are. That the world is filled with temptation is nothing new to us. The saying goes: Opportunity may knock only once, but temptation leans on the doorbell. Temptations abound in our world. The irony is that while we have the urge to go out and get the latest whatever, rarely is there the “temptation,” the urge, to turn back to God, to confess and re-consider what we do with such ease.

Here is where another Lenten text comes in. On Wednesday, Psalm 51 was the appointed text. Credited to King David, most of us know parts of it well. “Create in me a clean heart, O God; Cast me not away from thy presence." What makes Psalm 51 perfect for Ash Wednesday and also a good carryover to today is that it deals with sin and temptation honestly, owning up to mistakes and asking that God forgive.

What is temptation? It is anything that diverts our attention enough that we forget about God and what God provides. One scholar said: “the goal of temptation…is to pull you off the mission of living a life that’s obedient to God and gives glory to God. Instead, Satan wants you to walk through life scratching every sinful itch and ultimately just gratifying yourself. The hope is that if he can get you to do it enough, he can get you off God’s team altogether.” Great quote and the perfect metaphor.

Chances are we will not be tempted like Jesus to: turn stones to bread, or worship Satan in exchange for being ruler of the world, nor are we likely to even consider a spectacle such as jumping from the pinnacle of a temple. No, our temptations are far more subtle. There are “sinful itches” all around us. And, we may be made in the image of God, but not one of us is Jesus.

Temptation comes in our search for meaning, in our search for what we believe makes a perfect life. And in those searches, whether for happiness, fame, fortune, security, we often end up throwing away the most precious things, and the most precious people. We throw away friendships, values, manners, common sense and decency. Some argue that we too often throw away our souls in pursuit of whatever dream we have.

We wake up wondering who we are and how we got here. It is bound to happen and it always does. It is also a stock part of novels and movies.

Whatever you want to call it, we sense down deep that something is wrong. Something is broken. Something needs to be fixed. And we pray, just like David, that we will not be cast away from God’s divine presence.

God will not leave us. That is not who God is. What temptation does – once the deed is done – is reveal how far we feel from God. That God is distant.

When we feel far from God, it is not because God has moved.

We're the ones who have moved. It may be because we have a "throwaway God," a God we call on or need when it is convenient, like an insurance policy, or worse, a 911 call. A God to whom we pray only when in need, and for some a God who is not important because we don’t apply that simple ask: Love the Lord Your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.

This would all be depressing, except that each year, Lent rolls around so that we take a look at our lives and see what needs fixing. We know that God goes to great lengths for us. We know that God will not cast us away. God repairs and redeems.

But you do need to acknowledge that something's broken.

Back to Psalm 51. David knows that he has done wrong and that he needs forgiveness and a chance at redemption. “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”

We have to acknowledge that there is a problem. We do fall short. And we know we are not perfect. So, what the church does each year is this season we call Lent. We take 40 days, roughly a tenth of a year, a tithe, and we go through this time, when the days lengthen and little by little more light appears, not just in the sky but in our spirits as well.

Frederick Buechner speaks of Lent like this:
“Jesus went off alone into the wilderness, where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.
·   If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn't, which side would get your money and why?
·   When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?
·   If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less?
·   Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?
·   Is there any person in the world or any cause that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?
·   If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?”

In other words, what are the temptations in your life, and how do you deal with them? And having dealt with them, how do you start anew? Lent helps with that. After all, Jesus threw the devil off course and went on, and we follow.

Getting back to David Brooks’ book, where he tries to assist us in recovering moral vocabulary. He profiles people like Dorothy Day, Dwight Eisenhower and George Eliot, all who had their own inner struggles. Brooks asks us to look again at the tradition of "moral realism." This tradition, he says, emphasizes that we are sinners made of "crooked timber," capable of great good, but deeply flawed. We do understand the long-term, we just would rather have the benefit of a short-term pleasure.

And the best thing is, we do not do it alone. God has not moved away from us. God is in the business of healing and restoring and redeeming. But you have to recognize the problem that temptations get in the way. And you will find, as I have, over and over again, that there is nothing and no one that God cannot restore. God can even bring life from death.  Amen.

                                                                                Soli Deo Gloria

March 2, 2022 -- Ash Wednesday
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

Ash Wednesday
March 2, 2022

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

“Ever feel like you’ve wasted a year or two of your life? More than 400 years ago, 15 days disappeared — forever. It was 440 years ago when our ancestors in England, France, Italy, Germany or any place which followed the Julian calendar, went to bed on October 4, 1582, and got up to smell the coffee on October 15… 

"Actually, no days were lopped off anybody's lifespan, but the date gap occurred nonetheless. The loss of days was the result of a papal bull issued by Pope Gregory XIII to reform the Julian calendar then in use. His goal was to make the calendar match events of the solar and lunar cycles necessary for calculating the date of Easter each year. Gregory accomplished that primarily by setting the calendar so that the vernal equinox was always near March 21, where it had been during the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325. This adjustment required removing 10 days of ‘drift’ that had accumulated in the years since (because a Julian year, at 365.25 days, was slightly longer than an actual year). Gregory also reworked the calendar so that the tabular 14th day of the moon would correspond to the actual full moon.

"Initially, the new Gregorian calendar only covered the Catholic Church and the Papal States, but gradually, it was adopted almost universally for practical reasons, including international communication, transportation and commerce. We remain on the Gregorian calendar to this day.”

It strikes me that we are all feeling this same thing. Two years ago, Ash Wednesday was February 26, and while we had heard of COVID, we had not seen the worst of it. It was Friday, March 13, that Council made the decision to go virtual with worship. Since then, we have been back and forth, with whatever new variant comes along, sometimes in person, sometimes not.

But now, two years later, I feel fatigued. And I know you do as well. It has been quite the faith journey we have been on.

And, it feels as though we have lost time. Fewer gatherings, fewer vacations, less worship, less shopping, less just doing what we were so accustomed to doing. Putting our lives on hold has never been a favorite pastime. Long before this pandemic, we knew what it was to have your life put on hold for a few minutes, or hours, even a week or so. Like with a sinus infection. Or gridlock after an accident. Or taking a wrong turn, retracing your that distance to get back on track.

Oh, we know what it is like to wait. Those daily waiting times add up as well. Waiting in line, waiting for a part to arrive for your car, waiting to play spring and summer sports. We all have that feeling, that we have lost time.

In each of these cases, there can be a sense that time has been squandered, taken from us, and that is not a pleasant realization, especially when we think of our lifetime, and how finite that is. That time is gone, never to be recovered.

But is time lost? Can we actually say that time has been taken from us when, in fact, we did live those days, even if it was in circumstances we didn't like? One of my favorite quotes from John Lennon: "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans," but it's also what happens when you're sitting in traffic, lying in bed sick, waiting out bad weather or in this case, when we are going through a pandemic.

In other words, "life happens" not just when we are flourishing at work or in fun times, but in every second. Those who enjoy getting things done find "lost" time especially frustrating, and they are those who are now going to attempt to pack two years of lost memories into a few months. Some of us will respond by find ways to "redeem" it, such as scheduling a job we may have put aside, or marking a vacation on the calendar.

However, it is a truth, that these trying times may be trying to teach us something.

“M. Scott Peck, who contributed so much to the understanding of what makes us tick, maintains that the reason we are here on earth -- the meaning of life, if you will -- is to learn, by which he means to progress. ‘I defy you in your imagination to construct a more ideal environment for human learning than this life,’ Peck says. ‘It is a life filled with vicissitudes, uncertainty and hard lessons. In our gloomier moments, life may seem like some sort of a celestial boot camp.’” Peck goes on saying that the business of learning is not simple and often does not come with easy to follow instructions.

You have heard me speak of “kronos” time and “Kairos” time. Kronos is that time we can accurately measure. Kairos time is not easy to pin down. Kairos time is when the harvest will be ready, or when a baby will come into this world. Oh, we have an idea, but it is not fixed.

I believe that through this, God is calling us and inviting us to come nearer to Him. God uses all time. On Sunday, I mentioned that we lose 23 minutes of waking time each day just by blinking. Well, God never blinks. All time belongs to God.

I can’t help but think of the Prodigal Son, who had "squandered his property in dissolute living." That was certainly lost time, but he "he came to himself" and realized that he needed mercy, and his time had not been lost, but rather redemptive.

Peck goes on: "Given that we're here to continually learn on the journey of life, it seems that the ultimate goal of learning is the perfection of our souls." Now he adds that this is not being perfect, but rather that we are progressing, being made complete, growing and changing all through our time on earth.

The lessons learned from "lost time" can be redemptive. My hope is for this Lenten season, which we begin today, will be a time of thought, a time of looking back and realizing how we have been changed. Are we more compassionate? More generous? More patient, or understanding? Do we value our neighbors more?

What if God has been calling us these past two years, calling us to return to Him? What if God wants us to mature spiritually, always learning and listening, so that we can make sense of our life and who we are in it? What if God wants us to slow down, spend more time with family? What if God wants us to appreciate life? He is the potter; we are the clay.

When I left St. Timothy almost 20 years ago, with a diagnosis of depression and being told I was a terrible pastor, I believed that those two and a half years of my life had been for nothing. I was angry at the church…and at God. But then a position at Mercy Hospital opened, and I began to change, little by little, slowly, taking on new experiences and new challenges. And it too was filled with more than a few disappointments. But now I realize that time was not lost, painful as it was. As one philosopher said: If we want to give light, we must endure the burning.

I believe that is what God intends. These past two years have been useful, you’ll see. We have been molded and will continue to be. The pandemic appears to be in the final stages as it becomes endemic, so this Lent, let us use our time to come to ourselves, to make sense of our lives, to grow spiritually and most importantly, to listen for His voice, to seek His wisdom, to walk with Jesus to that darkest of days. And then, when we believe all is lost, we will find new life.

Because, in the end, there is no “lost” time with God, because God never blinks. Amen.

                                                                               Soli Deo Gloria

 

February 27, 2022 -- Transfiguration Sunday
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

Transfiguration Sunday (Year C)
Luke 9, Exodus 34
St. John’s, West Seneca
February 27, 2022 

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

For the past two years, on and off throughout the pandemic, we have been wearing masks. Much of the face is covered, and so, what we have missed is the ordinary: like a smile, although I would argue that even behind a mask, when you smile, your eyes do as well. But still, think of it. With half our face obscured, we miss much of the face. Yet, we still recognize each other. We see a familiar figure, hear a well-known voice.

And yet today, the face takes center stage. Both Moses’ and Jesus’ appearances glow after being in the presence of God. Moses even puts on a veil when he speaks to the Israelites.

 In a book simply entitled “The Face,” Daniel McNeill explores the human face in all its amazing detail.  The back cover alone gets the imagination going with these facts about the face.
·   Our eyes are white to highlight their movements, which send a constant stream of messages.
·   The most easily recognized expression is the true smile.
·   The evil eye is the most widespread superstition on earth.
·   Apes can recognize themselves in mirrors, but monkeys cannot.
·   Being stared at increases the heartbeat and alters the galvanic skin response.
·   In very cold or dry regions, noses tend to be longer and narrower; in hot, damp climes noses are short and flat.           Blinking makes us lose 23 minutes of each waking day.

There is no doubt about it; faces matter. This is what we project to the world, and whether we know it or not, our facial expressions are dictated to us by cultural norms.  McNeill goes on to comment on what he calls “The Japanese smile.”

“All cultures have display rules, what (one expert) calls ‘norms’ regarding the expected management of facial appearance.’ These rules ordain which expression to show in a given circumstance, and how much to show it. They explain why tears flowed so freely from the Polish nobility, and why Mediterraneans seem more ‘emotional’ than Scandinavians…Perhaps the outstanding example of a display rule is the Japanese smile…’an elaborate and long-cultivated etiquette.’  Japanese live on small, crowded island and prize politeness as a social lubricant.  Scientists find that both Japanese and Americans show the same expressions of fear, disgust and distress when alone.  With others, though, the Japanese mask negative emotions with smiles much more often. They not only smile when pleased or embarrassed, like Westerners, but also when depressed and when conveying painful or shocking information.  They aim to avoid disturbing others, but Westerners find this smile astounding and offensive. Intriguingly, the Japanese actually look less favorably on smiles overall, knowing they are so commonly false.  Hence when Westerners smile in photos, Japanese more often look neutral or grave.”

Did you know that the human face has thousands upon thousands of expressions?  Simply observe and you will see. But the expressions today, not only from Moses and Jesus, but from Aaron and the disciples, probably add a few more previously unknown expressions. For today, we see the faces of Moses and Jesus, both changed.

Exodus tells us Moses was on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights, and that Moses did not eat or drink.

Moses had returned from the Mount Sinai with those two tablets bearing the Ten Commandments.  From being so close to the Holy One, his face was altered, changed and “the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” So changed was he that even his brother Aaron was afraid to come near him. After that, Moses put a veil over his face, except when he spoke with God, when the veil came off.

On another mountain, another change of face is happening.  Jesus has gone up the mountain along with Peter, James and John.  Luke tells us Jesus goes there to pray.  “And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”  Two men appear with him – Moses and Elijah.  And even though Peter and James and John were weighed down with sleep, they saw his glory; they saw those two other men talking with Jesus. After it all, nothing was said.

These events changed not only Moses and Jesus, but those around him.  One can only imagine the surprise of Aaron and the other Israelites as they looked upon the glowing skin of Moses. I have to wonder what their expressions were. Astonishment, surprise, dismay? One can only speculate what Peter, James and John thought as they saw Jesus – their teacher – changed so radically. And the questions probably arose: who is this and what had they gotten themselves into?

As we come to the end of the Epiphany season and into Lent, it is a good time to think on our faces, our expressions, most notably, what they convey as God’s chosen people. Just look back to January 6th and remember what we have seen:
·   Wise men bearing great gifts, fit for a king;
·   A baptism in the Jordan and a heavenly announcement;
·   Changing water into wine;
·   Reading in the synagogue and then being pursued;
·   The calling of normal people to follow;
·   Blessings and woes;
·   And forgiveness, along with a list of etiquette.
As you listened to those stories again, were you astonished, or amused, or fearful, or bewildered by any of this? If you were, your face probably showed it.

But now, Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem and we follow. This is the time to think on what kind of relationship we have with God. Is it waxing or waning? Does it need some mending? What will we look like if we simply took the time to sit with him and be silent? Will our appearance be changed?

Because if you are willing to follow Jesus, remember this. You will be changed. Look at what happens when Moses spends time with God: Exodus says that "the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God." Walter Brueggemann wrote that "after this meeting, Moses is no ordinary person, for he has entered deeply into God's own life." While it is hard for us to imagine what this shining face looks like, we can understand it as a reflection of God. In Scripture, the glory of God is often described as a fire or dazzling light.

Just as Jesus’ face was changed, transformed, so are we when we place our trust in God. And it is a whole expression transformation. Maybe not in such a radical way, but we are changed. We do become more loving, more forgiving, honest, and compassionate. We find that we are more generous and we have a desire to serve others, rather than always thinking of ourselves. Wherever we go, at home, in school, at work, people see who we are, that we are trying to follow Jesus. Our faces will give us away.

After all the events of the past few weeks, our expressions should have run the gamut from joy to wonder to who knows?  Of all the wondrous events that have transpired, it is this one that matters most. This “season of the weird” has revealed who Jesus is and what he has come to do. It is the moment when we see who Jesus is. And now, he has set his face toward Jerusalem.

Ever seen someone in a different light? One so out of character that it takes you completely by surprise?  Most of us have seen a person so changed, transfigured if you will. When that happens, suddenly there is a new recognition. And it can be jarring, just as it is today for Aaron and the disciples. Suddenly, the curmudgeonly old guy is giggling like a teenager while playing with a grandchild, or a young person in love, or the joy of seeing someone after a long absence. It can be downright uncomfortable, especially if we deal in stereotypes.

The human face is wondrous. God came to us as a child so that we could relate, so we could understand and belong. Jesus’ face today is brilliant as he comes down the mountain. I hope our faces are as well.

We conclude this season of Epiphany and now look toward Lent, our faces aglow with the knowledge that Jesus is going toward Jerusalem for us. Best of all, our faces – and their thousands of expressions - are known by God and so we can walk these next forty days knowing that we are His. So let us set our faces toward Jerusalem, and may they be aglow with God’s love and grace.

                                                                                Soli Deo Gloria

February 20, 2022 -- 7th Sunday after Epiphany
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

7 Epiphany (Year C)
Genesis 45, Luke 6
St. John’s, West Seneca
February 20, 2022 

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

What is forgiveness?  On the face of it, it sounds do-able. But the truth is much more difficult. Today in the First Reading, we see the conclusion of Joseph’s story. Here’s the story so far. He is the favored son of Jacob by Rachel. Joseph is an interpreter of dreams, which gets him into trouble with his elder brothers. Tired of him, they hatch a scheme, throw him in a pit, sell him to a passing caravan. He ends up in Egypt, assigned to a household, is accused of sexual harassment, thrown into jail. There he meets two of Pharaoh’s servants who have fallen from grace, both disturbed by dreams. Joseph correctly interprets them, and while the one promises to remember Joseph, alas, he does not. Until, that is, the Pharaoh is plagued with dreams. Joseph interprets them, and as a reward is elevated to a place next to Pharaoh. When there is famine, the one that Joseph discerned, his brothers – back home - learn that there is grain in Egypt.

So they make the journey, and come face-to-face with Joseph. They do not recognize their brother, but Joseph recognizes them. He treats them well, then plays games with them, has them thrown into jail.  But then, in a moment of high drama, comes today’s reading.  Joseph reveals himself to his brothers: “I am Joseph…Come closer to me.” He speaks of their sordid past, then states three times that it was God who sent him to Egypt to preserve life.

Forgiveness. What Joseph discovered is what I hope we all discover. Joseph has realized the role that God has had in his life, and how that has brought him to this moment, a time for forgiveness. And, just as Dorothy discovers in The Wizard of Oz, there are some things we must learn on our own. Until he made that discovery, that God prevails, he would be unable to see good coming from evil.

I imagine that – over the years - Joseph had thought of punishments for his brothers if he were to meet them again. Except that when that moment came, when push came to shove, he was able to see how God had been with him through the course of his life, through good and evil.

And so, Joseph decides to be a reflection of God’s mercy and grace.  He mirrors God's mercy by coming back into his brother’s lives. He will not abandon his brothers in their hour of need, even though he had been abandoned.  Just as Joseph has experienced God's grace and discovered God in the most surprising places, Joseph now assures his brothers that they are not alone. And if there is anyone who has been in “the pit of despair”, it is Joseph.

And so, here we are today, with Jesus words about loving those who hate and curse you, and then to offer forgiveness when you are wronged.

The truth is that God is always ready to forgive and to grant us the gift of forgiveness. But often we are resistant.  We are filled with anger and hate and old grudges to even receive a bit of forgiveness. Our worship service has the confession each week, but in our daily lives, there are often long unresolved rifts that tear at us and eat us from the inside out. There are brothers and sisters who never speak, and who, like Joseph are unaware if a family member is even alive. There are disputes in the workplace.  There are churches and pastors who hold on to old hurts and grievances and can’t seem to get beyond them.  And those are the easy ones. How can one forgive when a young person with a promising future is killed by a drunken driver, or in a shooting rampage? Or children whose innocence is lost forever by abuse?

Forgiveness is not easy and it will come from outside ourselves. God stands at the ready with whatever we need. But we have to discover it and learn it and put it into practice.

In Joseph’s story, we see a foreshadowing of what Jesus is preaching today. Jesus also says: Come closer to me.

This brings us to a section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain as recorded by Luke: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

When Jesus says that we should love our enemies, and do good to those who hate us, most of us agree that this is a fine idea, a good thing not only for us, but for the whole creation. It is part of church life, and we have been hearing it from childhood on.

But in practice, how hard it is. The truth is that we have a hard time believing it. And I believe it is fair to say that most of us find it hard to practice loving those who hate and curse us.

Part of that is our modern world. Unlike Jesus and those of his time, we don’t usually run into enemies to love. Now, we have no issue with identifying them, or think we know who is on the highway to hell, but we can avoid them and so never have to “love” them as Jesus requests.

Our lives are fairly protected: we live in certain neighborhoods, shop at specific stores, rarely having encounters with those whose lifestyles we believe are wicked. And with some of our thinking, we just are not proactive.

So, we may disagree with Jesus, arguing that loving people just encourages them.
Or, we like the quid pro quo approach.
And while a nice sentiment, Jesus, we live in the real world.

And yet, as we continue this Gospel reading, Jesus piles on more, saying: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven…”

When we love, we forgive. We recite faithfully week after week in the Lord’s Prayer “…forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Joseph forgives his brothers. Now, you may argue, that’s easy when you have landed in a high position. Maybe so, but he did, and recounts that it is because of God and God’s providence. It is not about him anymore, and once he forgives, he realizes that gift that forgiveness is, and that is freedom.

“There was a little boy visiting his grandparents on their farm. And he was given a slingshot to play with out in the woods. He practiced in the woods, but he could never hit the target. And getting a little discouraged; he headed back to dinner.

"As he was walking back, he saw Grandma's pet duck. Just out of impulse, he let fly, hit the duck square in the head and killed it. He was shocked and grieved.

"In a panic, he hid the dead duck in the woodpile, only to see his sister watching. Sally had seen it all, but she said nothing.

"After lunch that day, Grandma said, ‘Sally, let's wash the dishes.’ But Sally said, ‘Grandma, Johnny told me he wanted to help in the kitchen today, didn't you, Johnny?’ And then she whispered to him, ‘Remember, the duck?’

"So Johnny did the dishes.

"Later Grandpa asked if the children wanted to go fishing, and Grandma said, ‘I'm sorry, but I need Sally to help make supper.’ But Sally smiled and said, ‘Well, that's all right because Johnny told me he wanted to help.’ And she whispered again, ‘Remember, the duck?’

"So Sally went fishing, and Johnny stayed.

"After several days of Johnny doing both his chores and Sally's, he finally couldn't stand it any longer. He came to Grandma and confessed that he killed the duck. She knelt down, gave him a hug and said, ‘Sweetheart, I know. You see, I was standing at the window, and I saw the whole thing. But because I love you, I forgave you.'

"‘But I was just wondering how long would you let Sally make a slave of you?’"

That is what forgiveness does. It sets you free from being a slave to the past. And one definition of forgiveness is “letting go of the idea that you can change the past.”

Nadia Bolz-Weber – formerly of All Saints and Sinners Lutheran - has a good understanding of forgiveness.

“when someone else does us harm, we’re connected to that mistreatment like a chain….What if forgiveness rather than being a pansy way of saying, ‘It’s okay,’ is actually a way of wielding bolt cutters and snapping the chain that links us. [Forgiveness can be a way of] saying ‘What you did is so not okay that I refuse to be connected to it anymore.’ Forgiveness is about being a freedom fighter, and free people…aren’t controlled by the past. Free people laugh more than others. Free people see beauty where others do not…Free people are unafraid to speak truth to stupid. Free people are not chained to resentment…[Forgiveness] really is a light that shines in the darkness that the darkness cannot, will not, shall not overcome.”

Forgiveness is about being free. Our forgiving another is for us, so that we can live without the past haunting us, occupying our thoughts, keeping us ultimately from what God desires for us. And all the anger and frustration, fear, resentment that we keep pent up does not free us, it just keeps us chained. And meanwhile, the brokenness of this world just continues. On and on and on. That doesn’t mean we forget the pain, or that we say it’s okay for someone to do that to another. It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It does mean that we move on, freely so that we can enjoy this life without fear, as God intended.

Getting back to that story, picture Jesus standing at the window. And he saw the whole thing. But because he loves you, he will forgive you. And he also asks: How long is that going to make a slave of you? Amen.

                                                                              Soli Deo Gloria

February 13, 2022 -- 6th Sunday after Epiphany
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

 Epiphany 6 (Year C)
Luke 6: 17-26
St. John’s, West Seneca
February 13, 2022

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

Today we have Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. And oh, how different they are from Matthew’s well-known version. First of all, these Beatitudes take place on the plain, a flat, probably grassy place. Matthew’s Beatitudes are part of the famous Sermon on the Mount.  No doubt you have seen the difference. While Matthew has eight, Luke has only four, and he includes the “woes,” or the sorrows, or in the most dramatic language, curses.

Small wonder that we prefer Matthew’s version. Luke raises disturbing questions: Is it wrong to be rich? Or successful? And what about laughter?

There are cynics among us who would say that Jesus is playing to the crowd, except that doesn’t ring true. He is not simply telling the crowd – and us – what they want to hear, but rather, he is revealing a far deeper thing, and that is spiritual truth. What is blessing?

Standard definitions are: to make holy by a religious ceremony or words, as in a blessing of a church; to ask the favor or protection of God, as in “God bless you”; or to give praise or honor, as when we say: bless the Lord.

Consider those Jesus sees as blessed: the poor, the hungry, and those who weep.  It makes no sense to us. Aren’t those the very things we are to avoid?  They have never been on my “bucket” list. But if we know anything about Luke and his Jesus, it is that Luke is the gospel of the poor and of social justice.  Luke says "Blessed are the poor" instead of "Blessed are the poor in spirit" here.  He is the one who tells the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man who ignored him.  Only in Luke's gospel do we hear Mary's Magnificat where she proclaims that God "has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty".

These are hard verses, so matter how sweet we try to make them, and no matter how we try to explain it; we can’t escape it: Jesus turns the world upside down.  Jesus sees so much unsightliness where the world sees beauty, and he finds beauty in that which we would resist.  One has to wonder why.

Perhaps the answer can be found in another of his teachings - that of the rich young man who wants to know what he must do to earn eternal life.  The answer is a simple one for Jesus: simply sell all you have and follow him.  When the young man goes away sorrowful, Jesus words ring in our ears: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  What is at stake for Jesus is not what you have, it’s what you have that keeps you from sensing what you need.

And that is the key.  Do you know what you need?  Jesus knows the unwanted and his “woes” go out to those with no unmet needs – or even unmet desires.  Do we know what we need?  Because if you think it is money and power and prestige, Jesus asks you to think again.  In the long run and over time, those are poor substitutes for the joy and peace that come from living in God’s light.

Our God is a God who blesses. The wonder of God’s power to bless is that it happens regardless of our circumstances. It was Helen Keller — the blind and deaf mute who triumphed over her disabilities — who wisely pointed out, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” God’s way of blessing us, sometimes, is not to remove the cause of our complaint, but to give us strength to prevail over it. It’s like the remark of the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson: “It is the wounded oyster that mends its shell with pearl.”

Who’s to say what’s a blessing and what’s a curse in the great scheme of things? From our human perspective, what looks like the greatest of calamities may, in a God’s-eye view, really be our salvation.

“There’s an old parable from the Jewish tradition describing a wealthy farmer who was visited by the prophet Elijah. (In Judaism, as you may know, Elijah’s something like the Holy Spirit; he can drop in and visit any time — which is why, at the seder meal, a seat is always left empty for him.) On this visit, Elijah’s accompanied by a young rabbi, who wants to observe how the prophet metes out divine justice.

The two arrive at the farm disguised as poor and weary travelers. The farmer banishes them to the barn, with only bread and water for supper. He has no time for visitors, he gruffly explains. He has to dig a well the next day.

After a cold and sleepless night, Elijah arises before dawn. He goes out from the barn and digs the farmer’s well.

‘Why did you do that?’ his young protegé asks him later. ‘Our host is cruel and heartless. He neglects the sacred laws of hospitality. But you have blessed him by digging his well!’

‘It’s true that I’ve dug his well,’ Elijah admits. ‘And the place where I have dug it will yield sweet water for many generations. What you don’t know is that this farmer was planning to dig the well in another place: a few feet below the ground in that location lies a secret treasure. Because I’ve dug his well, rather than he, that treasure will go undiscovered for a hundred years: long after our host has gone to his grave. What seems like a blessing is not always a blessing!’”

How many times has that been true in your life? And so when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor … the hungry … and those who weep,” he’s speaks to a simple truth: that God is in charge of creation and redemption and that God isn’t finished with us yet. God will always bless us if we have faith and maybe even when we don’t. “God may bless us some day with what we most desire. Or, perhaps more likely, God may bless us through what we desire but don’t receive.”

We have all heard, especially in difficult times, that well-meaning friend who says: “Just count your blessings. Look on the bright side. Concentrate on the good things in life; it’s never so bad it couldn’t be worse!”

We are always eager to do that, and often in terms of what we have: a good job, a nice house, etc. It’s not counting our blessings that’s important. It’s not the number of blessings that you have. It’s the blessing itself that counts: God’s blessing, the God who journeys with us through good times and bad times, health and sickness, laughter and tears. And everything in between.

God is always blessing. That is why Jesus’ words today are comforting. These blessings and woes also ask us to examine our lives, and to remember that God blesses through thick and thin. There is no need to count our blessings, because with God, those blessings are present and abundant. Amen

                                                                                 Soli Deo Gloria

February 6, 2022 -- Epiphany 5
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

5 Epiphany (Year C)
Luke
St. John’s, West Seneca
February 6, 2022

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

“He lived the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Born into wealth and privilege, he was a notorious party animal. He lived a life of selfish ease. Much to the dismay of his mother, an upstanding Christian, he haunted the low-life dives of the city. He kept company with disreputable characters. He had a son by his live-in girlfriend and made no move to marry her. He was, in short, an embarrassment.

"One day, this entitled young man had a change of heart. Over the years he’d heard the rudiments of Christian teaching from his mother, but it had never stuck. On this particular day he found himself sitting in the garden of the family estate, a Bible in his hands. He felt troubled by the emptiness of his life.

"The young man opened the Bible and read these words: 'Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires' (Romans 13:13-14).

"Years later, the man wrote about how he felt that day: 'Instantly, it was as if the light of peace was poured into my heart, and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.'

"Not long after, this dissolute young man surprised his friends by training for the priesthood. Ultimately, he became not only a priest, but a bishop.

"It is this very man — this one-time playboy — who is now called 'Saint' in many Christian traditions. His name was Augustine, and he lived in the fourth century. He was as unlikely a candidate for sainthood as any you'll find.”

That is to remind us: God calls unlikely people. And the calls we see today are wondrous and miraculous. First there is Isaiah.

“In the year that King Uzziah died…” Isaiah sees the Lord himself, “high and lifted up” with the hem of his garment filling the temple. God is surrounded and attended by the seraphim, those six-winged angels who sing the Holy Holy Holy.  The pivots shake; there is smoke.

Isaiah is terrified. “Woe is me!” “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

One of the seraphim come to Isaiah, with a tongs holding a live coal. This creature touches Isaiah’s lips and all his sins and transgressions are blotted out.  And that is when he hears the call: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” We know Isaiah’s answer. His call is other-worldy.

Next there is Peter, whose call is in a more ordinary setting.

When Peter, after a long night of fishing with nothing to show for it, agrees to go out one more time, finding this time a miraculous catch of fish, he – like Isaiah -- is overcome with his imperfections.  “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”  Peter too finds reassurance and he leaves everything to follow a new course.

Jesus’ disciples are like that. They’re ordinary people, not the movers and shakers, the honored professionals of their world, nor the scholars, but regular guys.  None of them has had much in the way of education. Not one has ever been to seminary. Yet, these are the ones Jesus invites to join him on a journey, and using a term they understand — fishing for the hearts and souls of people.

In our society, where we place a high premium on resumes and experience, these stories can be disconcerting. After all, aren’t we better? And yet, these stories should not surprise us, because we know God. God has other expectations. As seen in both Isaiah and Luke, there is no reason we can give that matters to God.  God just does not buy our excuses. And because God is God, a way will be found to show that excuse is not valid.

And yet, we still tend to hesitate, to pull back, arguing that there must be a mistake. And while we have many excuses, that is just part of it. There are other things in us and around us that block’s God’s call…as if that were possible. We have our pride; we have goals and plans; and let’s not forget determination to seek success for ourselves. We believe that if we can dream it, we can do it.

In the Second reading, we learn that it is only when we turn ourselves over to God that we can then take those first steps of whatever God is calling us to do. “But by the grace of God I am what I am.”

There’s only one requirement for discipleship, in the last analysis: a willingness to submit to God’s call. You don’t have to be smart, or healthy, or even particularly religious. All you need to do is listen when God calls, and then get up and do what’s needed.

You don’t even need to respond immediately. The Bible is full of people like Jonah, who — as soon as they hear God calling — run off in the opposite direction. However, we must remember that God’s call is persistent. God will just keep at it and will catch up to us wherever we may be hiding. And when we accept, we are transformed to be His people in the world. He is the potter; we are the clay.

Call stories – like those of Peter and Isaiah, and last week Jeremiah, whose excuse was that he was too young – come along to remind us that we are part of God’s continuing story.  God calls us to new ventures, new tasks and new opportunities. The problem is that we choose not to hear because we are far too wrapped up in our own plans.  We are so busy trying to be what we believe we should be that we forget that when God has a design for us. We put aside the work of the church and the kingdom until the kids are older, or when we make partner, or when we are more stable, or retired.  Or maybe we avoid Jesus because we think we are too old, or too young, or too whatever.  You fill in the blank.

So ask yourself today if there is something we have been meaning to do recently, but haven’t. Maybe there’s some volunteer effort you are interested in, some task here that no one seems to be interested in.

Or maybe you are restless and you don’t know why. Perhaps God is tugging you in a new direction. Augustine argued that our hearts are restless until we find rest in God.

We’re all unlikely candidates for discipleship, every last one of us. We are as normal, as ordinary as they come, sometimes struggling with our faith, wavering in commitment, having a difficult time, or maybe just tired. God makes use of all of that.

I found an illustration that is speaks to what type Jesus would call. Now, this is tongue-in-cheek, using the modern tool of a consulting firm to assess Jesus’ choices for disciple as He begins His ministry.

“Jesus, Son of Joseph
Woodcrafters Carpenter Shop
Nazareth, State of Galilee
Kingdom of Herod

Dear Sir:
We are pleased to have reviewed the resumes of the 12 men you have picked for management positions in your organization. They have taken our battery of psychological tests, and our vocational counselors have interviewed each one. It is our staff’s professional opinion that most of your nominees are lacking in background, education and vocational aptitude for the enterprise you are undertaking. They are not team players. We recommend that you continue your search until you find better-qualified candidates.
Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper.
Andrew has absolutely no qualities of leadership.
The brothers, James and John, place personal interest above company loyalty.
Thomas demonstrates a skeptical, questioning attitude that would tend to undermine morale.
Our investigators have discovered that the Jerusalem Better Business Bureau has an inch-thick file of ethics complaints against Matthew concerning his former employment as a tax collector.
James, son of Alphaeus, and Thaddeus definitely have radical leanings, and both register a low score on tests of psychological stability.

Only one of your candidates shows high potential. He is a man of ability and resourcefulness. He meets people well, has a keen business mind and has contacts in the highest places. He is highly motivated, ambitious and responsible. Therefore, we recommend Judas Iscariot as your chief operating officer.
Wishing you every success in your new venture,
Jordan Management Consultants”

Yes, from that unlikely, motley group came the beginning of the church. Still have excuses?
Amen.

                                                                                   Soli Deo Gloria

January 30, 2022 -- Epiphany 4
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

4 Epiphany (Year C)
Luke 4
St. John’s, West Seneca
January 30, 2022

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

Why is it that the times that should be high points seem not to be? The times we are convinced will be the best, when we are happy, or proud, often turn out to be the worst.

How many family gatherings– Christmas and Thanksgiving, in particular - start out fun, then turn into debacles? One brother isn’t speaking to the other. Someone spills a drink that may or may not come out of the carpet. A vase gets broken. There is often too much alcohol. How many of us return from the holidays exhausted from all the “fun,” instead feeling joyful, or if not joyful, then at least content.

Weddings are another time when things can go awry. The number of things that go wrong on wedding days -- cakes dropped, rings lost, heat with no air conditioning, flowers delivered to the wrong church, the bride’s father being left at the church with no way to get to the reception—that number is about the number of people who wish they had just eloped. My standard practice when meeting with engaged couples is to be honest. Don’t expect perfection; that is for the Hallmark channel. It will not be perfect, but it’s the imperfections that make it memorable.

Sometimes it seems that whenever we expect the best of times, we get something else.

Thankfully, the reverse is also true. How many people, now comfortable somewhere in the American "middle class," find themselves looking back on their early starving and struggling days and suddenly realize that those were the best of times?  Remember your salad days?

What makes life so full, so rich, so wonderful is that we can never completely filter out the bad from the good or the good from the bad. There is always a little bit of both on our plate, spicing up our lives in unexpected ways.

No my friends, life can not be divided up into neat categories -- consider this: There are two types of people in the world -- optimists and pessimists. And the definitions?  An optimist is a person who doesn't know any better. A pessimist is a person who doesn't know any better.

This is what we see today. Jesus has returned home to Nazareth and one can almost read the newspaper headline: HOMETOWN BOY DOES GOOD.  It should have been the best of times, but instead, today we see pretty much everything going awry.

We begin where we left off last Sunday.  Jesus has just finished reading Scripture when he announces this: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  We are told that all around him “spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”  Is this not Joseph’s son, they asked themselves, wondering how such a marvel could have come from their dusty little town.  There was much hope pinned on Jesus that day, the celebration was planned, and then…

Then, it all goes wrong when Jesus does what Jesus does. Jesus has come to preach to the poor, to set the captive free, to perform a miracle or two. Now it seems that the residents of Nazareth want the same wonder, but none of the condemnation. They expected the wondrous events that had everyone talking had been done.

Jesus turns the table on them, telling them to “cure” themselves and read it again. Jesus reminds them that God’s chosen often bring the “good news” to those who are regarded as outsiders.  This was not what they had hoped to hear, not from one they had such high hopes for. Sensing that, Jesus then reminds them that in their own history, God has stepped out of the boundaries, extending mercy to an outsider.

The first is by mentioning the widow to whom Elijah had been sent, reminding them that there were many widows in Israel at the time, yet this woman was singled out.

He then goes on to mention Naaman, a Syrian general who sought the help of Elisha.  There were also many lepers in Israel at the same time, yet Naaman was cleansed.

So, God tends to all people, a Gentile woman, an enemy of Israel, and often over and against the needs of God’s own people. Jesus is saying that his ministry is one of doing the same thing, bring the good news, God’s grace, to those who need it most. And to those who desperately need it regardless of their affiliation, heritage or status.

A sure way to go from a hero to a zero is to remind people of the painful realities of their own history. That’s why we Americans are so upset all the time. It takes only a few minutes for the hometown fans who want no part of “loving their neighbors” to change their minds about Jesus.

The crowd was furious. Their admiration turned to anger in a second.  They got up, drove Jesus out of town and were going to throw him off the brow of the hill, probably the same hill where they had persecuted so many of the prophets, as we hear in Jeremiah. Luke describes a miraculous getaway, as Jesus simply passes through them and goes on his way. Another mob later in Luke will accomplish their task.

In the midst of what was to be a great time with their beloved hometown boy done good, with words and deeds, everything went amiss.  It’s as bad as Uncle Jim drinking too much, or that pesky cousin spilling wine on the carpet.  After all, was it too much to ask that he do as they want?

The truth is this: we never know what God is going to do exactly, no matter how we plan.  It is in God’s nature to be as God chooses, not as we choose.  When Moses asked God his name, God’s answer is: I am who I am, which also means “I will be who I will be.”  You can plan and calculate and perform all you want, but God will do as God desires, not as we desire. “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Look at Abraham. Already an old man when he first hears God's call, Abraham obediently begins his long, wandering search for a home based on God's promise. Now, when God promises that he and Sarah shall have their own son, Abraham believes.  And out of the worst conditions -- extreme old age and barrenness -- God brings the best to Abraham and Sarah, their son Isaac.

Remember Jonah, that reluctant prophet who throws a fit when the people of Nineveh repented and God does not bring the destruction he has promised. So Jonah goes and sulks under a tree, a tree that God provided.

And few people combine the best and the worst in themselves as well as Simon Peter. The first called, Peter was always in the forefront of whatever was going on. In a miraculous moment of insight, Peter correctly identified and confessed Jesus as "the Christ." But, it is also true that no one but Judas betrayed Jesus more than Peter. He slept through Gethsemane, ran away at the first sign of trouble, then vehemently denied Jesus three times.

We believe that we can control what God does, and that somehow, we are entitled to the exact same treatment. What God does best is to shake it up a bit. And God inspires, in God’s way.  And history is replete with those who have done just that, just like Jesus does today.

“On his way to death, Christian father Justin Martyr penned words of faith and love that have endured for 19 centuries. Out of his experience with a corrupt, institutionalized faith, Martin Luther re-read his Bible and breathed the air of Reformation back into the church. Lying on his back, his "canvas" curving overhead, Michelangelo produced the glory of the Sistine Chapel. Stone-deaf Beethoven composed music so moving that it brought audiences to tears. Feeling called to give back some of the many gifts he had been given, Albert Schweitzer took his considerable talents to a tiny, isolated mission in Africa and stayed on, even in the middle of war. Choosing the very worst slums of Calcutta for her mission, Mother Teresa's order now reaches millions as a witness for Christ's love and compassion.”

Jesus reminds the people of Nazareth, his hometown, that they need to listen as well and not expect better treatment just because of him.  It’s all about shaking things up a bit. It’s all about taking the worst and making it the best. Think of where our church would be if we did that. And, on a personal level, think about your own life. If you allow God to direct your life, you will find yourself living a life that is rewarding because of its surprises.  You will find yourself basking in God’s love and finding ways to reach out to the imperfect of our world and the imperfect in our lives.

Because, you see, if we want God’s will, then we have to let God be God.   Amen.

                                                                                Soli Deo Gloria 

January 23, 2022 -- Epiphany 3
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

3 Epiphany (Year C)
Luke and Nehemiah
St. John’s, West Seneca
January 23, 2022 

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

You don’t need to remember many dates from Scripture, and not just because it can be impossible to date exactly. Having said that, there are three you should remember: 1000 BC, the reign of King David, 721 BC, the Northern Kingdom of Israel falls to the Assyrians, and 587 BC, the Southern Kingdom falls to the Babylonians.

In that year, Babylon swept in and conquered Judah, destroyed the Jerusalem temple and took many of the Hebrews into captivity. The prophets had warned them that their inability to live lives of worship and justice would not end well. And it didn’t.

And so for 50 years, the Jewish people lived in Babylonia, learned their culture, their ways, and left behind the Temple worship and living the Torah as they would have liked. But this changed when another superpower came marching in, namely Persia. When Babylonia fell, Ezra asked King Cyrus to allow them to begin returning to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Soon after, Nehemiah was allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild her defenses -- walls and gates.

You need to know this, or you would have no context as to why the people began crying when the Torah was read to them.

In this text, the people hung on every word. Even though Ezra was reading the Scriptures in a loud and clear voice, there was still a need for an interpreter, a translator to put them into Aramaic, which was more commonly spoken.

This section is important because for the first time, the Jewish people knew who they were…once again. This moment reconnected them to their past, to the ancestors who had gone before them. And, they had returned to Judah, and once again, were standing at the temple. They heard God’s voice in the words of the Torah as if hearing it for the first time. That was the reason for their tears, their weeping. They had returned.

Yes, they were God's people. They understood again that they were indeed the "People of the Book" -- to borrow the name that the Qur'an applies to faithful Jews and Christians.

So what can modern Christians learn from this Hebrew identification with the Scriptures? How can we, too, be "People of the Book?"

Jump ahead 500+ years to Jesus reading the Torah. Jesus has begun his ministry, teaching and preaching, and he comes to Nazareth, his hometown. And he reads from Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
 because he has anointed me
 to bring good news to the poor.
 He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
 and recovery of sight to the blind,
 to let the oppressed go free,
 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 After Jesus “rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down” everyone’s eyes “were fixed on him.” You can almost feel the tension as this hometown boy finishes. They wait for his interpretation, that is what was usually done. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” — fulfilled by his deeds, his words and his very presence.

And still this day, we need to Scriptures to be read and interpreted. That is what Jesus is doing when he reads in the synagogue. He is announcing that what the prophet Isaiah wrote so long ago, has now come to pass.

Both readings speak about Scripture being read and interpreted.

In ancient times and today, the Word of God has the power to reach into our deepest emotions, to speak to the heart, to touch the deepest corners of the soul.

The same message applies to us today when we allow the truth of God to shape our lives. There is nothing artificial about the power of the Word of God to refresh our souls and guide our steps. It is no lie that we can understand Scripture best when we “stand under” God’s Word and allow it to mold our hearts, souls and minds. When the Word is read and interpreted, we share the experience of the people of Judah, who wept and rejoiced “because they had understood the words that were declared to them” (v. 12).

We share the amazement in Luke as Jesus states that He is the One who was promised.

But where does it take us? In Nehemiah, there was joy and weeping, and then feasting. As we go forward in Luke, there is astonishment. Where are we? Or have become so accustomed to hearing the Word that we take it for granted?

The Word of God is a powerful thing. As I wrote in one of my devotions this past week, Scripture can be subversive.

“…at least three different countries have banned the public recitation of Mary’s Magnificat. These governments considered the song’s message to be dangerously subversive.

During the British rule of India, the Magnificat was prohibited from being sung in church.
In the 1980s, Guatemala’s government discovered Mary’s words about God’s preferential love for the poor to be too dangerous and revolutionary. The song had been creating quite the stirring amongst Guatemala’s impoverished masses. Mary’s words were inspiring the Guatemalan poor to believe that change was indeed possible. Thus, their government banned any public recitation of Mary’s words.
Similarly, after the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo — whose children all disappeared during the Dirty War — placed the Magnificat’s words on posters throughout the capital plaza, the military junta of Argentina outlawed any public display of Mary’s song.”

Again I ask, where are we in this picture? Are we driven to be inspired by Mary’s Magnificat, or angered? When Jesus speaks to us of treasure and its location, do we turn a deaf ear, or rationalize?  If, in every time and place, the Word of God is our truth, how do we live?  If the joy of the Lord is our strength, what are our actions? Are we ready to proclaim as Jesus did? And to a world that desperately needs it?

As I studied this past week, I came across this from the Council of Toulouse. The year is 1229. “We prohibit also that the laity should be permitted to have the books of the Old and New Testaments; unless anyone from the motives of devotion should wish to have the Psalter or the Breviary for divine offices or the hours of the blessed Virgin; but we most strictly forbid their having any translation of these books.”

That sent me down the rabbit’s hole of Catholic Councils and then into some study of heresies.

There was a time when Christians were not permitted to read the Bible, with some exceptions. Only the clergy were given that privilege. But Martin Luther changed that in the 1500s, and the Reformation stressed not only grace and faith, but learning, and in your own language.

Today we have a different world and the Bible has been translated fully into 349 languages and partially into over 1000 languages. Now, I have the Bible on my IPad.

The question is: does the Word move your very soul? What verses come to mind, making your heart sing?
·        The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…
·        Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
·        Do not be afraid…
·        Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.

The very heart and soul of our faith is the Word of God, and whether proclaimed in a community, or read privately, this is the force behind our belief and faith in God. ELCA clergy are ordained into the Ministry of the Word and Sacrament.

In Nehemiah, the people wept as they had not had the Word proclaimed to them in decades. And the people listened attentively. In Luke, Jesus speaks that Isaiah’s long promised Messiah had arrived.  “When the Word is read and interpreted, we share the experience of the people of Judah, who wept and rejoiced ‘because they had understood the words that were declared to them’” When Jesus read from the scroll, our reaction should be the same. Amen.

                                                                                 Soli Deo Gloria

January 16, 2022 -- Epiphany 2
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

2 Epiphany (Year C)
John 2: 1-11
January 16, 2022
St. John’s, West Seneca

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Barbara BrownTaylor writes: “This is not a story about us. It is a story about God, and about God’s ability not only to call us but also to create us as people who are able to follow — able to follow because we cannot take our eyes off the one who calls us, because he interests us more than anything else in our lives, because he seems to know what we hunger for and because he seems to be food.”

Or wine. This miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee begins our journey to become people who will follow, because God is so interesting that we just have to pay attention. And what a blessing that is. But sometimes it takes a miracle to see what God has done and what God is doing to make us rich in every way.

In today’s Gospel, we see the first of Jesus’ miracles, according to John: the changing of the water into wine at a wedding at Cana in Galilee.  There are seven signs in John’s gospel, seven miracles, each one more interesting than the next. The final sign, before the resurrection, is Lazarus being raised from the dead.

Throughout the gospels, there is something amazing, something holy, that is about to happen whenever Jesus is around food. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the image of the banquet represents how God’s power reverses the religion and social standings. Jesus shows this by sharing meals with prostitutes and sinners, anyone who is on the margin of society. In each Gospel, there is the Last Supper, but before that the feeding of the five thousand with a few loaves of bread and some fish.

Today’s gospel with the wedding at Cana is no exception. With all four gospel writers having Jesus talking about banquets, or being present himself, there is the idea of transformation taking hold. One scholar notes that a banquet: “summons up biblical images of the messianic era and messianic fullness, marked by wine and the abundance of fine foods.”

In ancient Israel, a wedding was a notable occasion. The wedding festivities lasted far more than one day.  The ceremony itself took place late in the evening, after a feast.  After the ceremony the young couple were taken to their new home.  By that time it would have been dark and so they were guided through the village streets by the light or torches and with a canopy over their heads.  They were taken the long way home, by the way, so that everyone would have the opportunity to congratulate them and wish them well.  The couple did not go away for a honeymoon; they stayed at home and for a week kept open house.  But even that was special, as they wore crowns and dressed in their bridal attire.

It was a blessed time, and in a place where there was much poverty and constant hard work, this week of joy and festivity was one of the grandest occasions in life at the time of Jesus.

But, as John says, something went wrong; there was not enough wine for everyone. In the ancient Near East, hospitality was an absolute necessity, and there were few things  considered more sinful than to not be hospitable. One of the arguments for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was they were not hospitable. So, at a wedding, the failure to provide enough provisions would have been a problem and a humiliation for the family.

And adding to that, wine held deep practical and spiritual significance for Jewish partygoers. Practically, it did what wine does for us today. It fills the stomach, lightens the heart and helps the mind put aside those things that would otherwise get in the way of enjoying a wedding party.

Spiritually, wine served as a sign and symbol of the joy and blessing that flow from God's hand into the hearts and lives of his chosen family. Without wine -- which was the centerpiece of the feast -- the celebration would no doubt come to a grinding halt, with its absence leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of the guests and an embarrassed host. So, in steps Jesus. At the request of his mother, Jesus makes sure the celebration does not end.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a guest at this wedding, and so she goes to Jesus, believing that he can be of some assistance.  His response seems a bit harsh, but probably wasn’t. But as Jesus says to her: “My hour has not come,” basically saying that is up to God. No matter the tone, she commands the servants to do whatever Jesus asks, and from there a miracle occurs. The jars of water set aside for purification purposes are transformed into not just wine, but the finest wine.  Even the steward remarks upon the quality of this new wine.

How thankful, how grateful the guests must have been.  A possible crisis had been averted; the celebration continued unabated.

It is Jesus’ first miracle, and while we are far away from this text, it speaks to us in a beautiful way about what it means to have Christ in the midst of us.  The gospel writers not only tell us of what Jesus did – once upon a time – but what Jesus continues to do for each of us.

Yes, Jesus, on one fine day did turn water into wine. But the key to this miracle is not just to look at it as a one time event, a spectacle, if you will, but as a continuous event. It transforms the world to what God wants, that new wine breaks in and changes everything, including the religious status quo.   Whenever Jesus enters into our lives, there comes a new quality which is like the turning of the water into wine.  That the water is drawn out of jars reserved for ritual washing is not to be missed. That water was intended to be used for the religious practice – cleaning the body, on the outside. Here Jesus uses this water to nourish us, transform us from the inside out.

Without Jesus, life is dull, hard, often stale; when Jesus enters into it, there is new life and celebration. Without Jesus, there is a lack of provisions; with Jesus, there is always enough.  With Jesus, there is a life filled with possibilities, and with each day comes a new opportunity to be a part of God’s great plan.

This text is about our relationship with God, a relationship that should transform us, every day, as we see God all around us. I came across a quote from Pope Gregory the Great, who said: “All men wondered to see the water turned into wine. Every day, the earth's moisture being drawn into the root of a vine, is turned by the grape into wine, and no man wonders. Full of wonder then are all the things which men never think to wonder at.”

Do you wonder at miracles that are all around us, or are you waiting for something supernatural, a spectacle?  I believe that part of our spiritual maturity is being filled with wonder at what is all around us. It is that wonder that deepens our relationship with God.

And yet, how many of us are willing to enter into this relationship fully and joyfully? How many of us want a great sign, and when we want it?  The truth is, we only want a relationship when it will work for us.  We want it when it is convenient for us, when there is a problem at hand. To be transformed by God is to be freed from sin, the old ways and the old evil, and the transformed Christian life is marked with love and service to the God who provides everything that we have.

Where is your relationship with God right now? Is God the divine Mr. Fixit, called on in an emergency or a 911 call? Or, do you put it all on God?

In an article in THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY, one author shared this; “Dave, a friend of mine from graduate school, lost his twin brother, Steve, to cancer. While struggling against the aggressive disease, Steve received a letter from a Christian woman telling him that she knew it was God’s will for him to be miraculously healed. All he had to do was believe. Far from providing comfort, the letter struck Steve like a hot iron of judgment. If he were not healed, she implied, it would be his own fault. This woman thought of divine providence in terms of control and protection. Because she assumed that God controls all events, she had to create a justification for God’s apparent inaction in this case. Her attempt to keep God blameless led her to place blame on Steve — God was ready to do the right thing if only Steve had enough faith. Though he had become very weak, Steve wanted to write a letter in response, so Dave recorded the words that Steve slowly struggled to express: ‘I share your faith in the almighty power of God to heal and sustain us. There may be times, though, when God’s greatest miracle is not the miracle of physical healing, but the miracle of giving us strength in the face of suffering. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12 that he prayed God would remove a thorn in the flesh, but God answered simply, ‘My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness … for when I am weak, then am I strong.’”
—Scott Bader-Saye, “Does God protect us?” The Christian Century, July 10, 2007, 29-32.

The signs in John’s Gospel, transform us into people who have faith and trust, even in dark times.

The miracle of Cana is that God continues to keep giving and giving, even to sending his only Son.  The miracle of Cana is that God is constantly calling us into relationship, relationships that are unconditional and transforming.

When Jesus changed the water into wine, he did far more than avert a social disaster.  Jesus replaced the old with the new, and it is a powerful reminder that Jesus transforms all those with whom he has a relationship. All we have to do is enter in.  Amen.

                                                                                 Soli Deo Gloria

January 9, 2022 -- Baptism of Our Lord
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

Baptism of Our Lord (Year C)
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
St. John’s, West Seneca
January 9, 2022 

15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

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

It is the Baptism of the Lord. To many of us, it’s one of the more obscure Christian festivals. But it’s one that has, from the earliest days, been central to the church’s tradition. We celebrate it the first Sunday after Epiphany.

It is the perfect place for the church to begin the story of Jesus’ ministry. We spent Advent waiting for his birth, then celebrating that birth for twelve days. This past Thursday was Epiphany, when the Wise Men visited, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

And today, we have Jesus’ baptism, an important enough event that all four gospels record it, in one way or another.

One of the central questions for this day is why Jesus was baptized. Why does he do it? Why does the son of God enter into this baptism of repentance and new life? Does the Son of God need this? Or is Jesus modeling what we are to do? Theologians still debate that question.

But what so many forget is what Jesus received from John that day was not what we know as Christian baptism, but rather a Jewish one. In many first century Jewish sects, one began the life of spiritual and religious discipline by passing through water. In Advent we read of John the Baptist doing this, and the crowds came because they were familiar with the ritual and what it meant…a new beginning.

And that is where we begin as well. Thursday marked the beginning of the season of Epiphany. This season varies from year to year, depending on the date of Easter. We begin with the Baptism of Our Lord and continue – this year – until February 27, when we celebrate the Transfiguration.

Epiphany is an odd season, we are not preparing for the birth of Jesus, as in Advent, we are not walking with Jesus to Jerusalem, as in Lent. We are not so filled with Easter joy or fear, nor have we just experienced the fire of the Holy Spirit. We are not growing and testing our faith as we do in the long season of Pentecost.

No, Epiphany is something different. Epiphany is an unveiling, each week bringing into focus who Jesus is, as well as those who came before him and other stories that may have been forgotten. By hearing them again, we can experience them, see the “new thing” that God is doing.

A book I read years ago entitled THINGS SEEN AND UNSEEN was written by a woman who related that she had begun attending church as a tourist, and as time and experience went, she became a pilgrim. She came into her faith skeptical, but because of her time spent in a community, she became so much more.

That idea has captured my attention, and I realized that it is a fitting way to go through this Epiphany season, a time this woman calls the “season of the weird.”

So, I am inviting you – these next weeks – to become a tourist. Enter as though you know none of these Bible readings and hear them again as if for the first time. And like a tourist, come with the expectation that you will experience something new. Isn’t that why we go on trips? To see new places, meet new people? So, each week, enter with a few questions. Who will you meet today? Who is speaking? And why? What’s the back story?

Here is sampling of what is in store:
·        We begin today with Jesus’ baptism, but not before John speaks of his greatness. In Isaiah, we see a God who accompanies us through thick and thin.
·        The next stop is a wedding, in Cana, where the wine is running low, never a good thing at a wedding.
·        Ezra will read from the Law, and the people will weep upon hearing it. Jesus will read from the Torah, and many will be amazed at this man from Nazareth.
·        Jeremiah is called, and his excuse is that he is just a boy. But God will put words in his mouth, appointing him over nations and kingdoms. Jesus will announce that a prophet is not accepted in his hometown, but not before he speaks of how Elijah and Elisha saved foreigners.
·        Jesus will call his disciples to fish for people; Isaiah will announce: Here I am, send me.
·        And, on the plain, Jesus speaks not only of God’s blessings, but also the ”woes.” So different from Matthew’s version. Jeremiah says the same thing.
·        Jesus tells us to love our enemies, and looking back all the way to Genesis, we see Joseph forgive his brothers.   ·        And then, Jesus will be transfigured on a mountain, changed before his disciples, and Moses returns from the mountain a changed man as well.

By then, my tourist friends, much will have been unveiled and we will be ready to walk with Jesus, not as tourists, intrigued by the sight, or hangers-on, seeing what happens next, but as followers of the Son of God.

This “season of the weird” will show us that God is present in the midst of tough times, and more than that, God will go to great lengths to calm our nerves and smooth out all the wrinkles that appear. God has always done so. What we have is a God who is not far and away, but one who accompanies us.

"In Isaiah today, we hear: ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,’ God’s not speaking like a lifeguard, ready to pluck us from the flood. No, our Lord dives in and helps us ride it out. It’s a promise of accompaniment.

There are two meanings to our English word ‘accompany.’ The first is the sense of one person walking alongside another. That thrilling story of the Emmaus Road, from the end of Luke’s gospel, comes to mind: how the risen Jesus overtakes two of his disciples who are sadly trudging their way along. At first, they don’t know who’s walking with them. But then, as he breaks the bread, their eyes are opened and they recognize him. God accompanies us, through our struggles, in just that way.

The second sense of the word ‘accompany’ is based on a smaller word hidden within the larger one. We who are baptized are members of a larger company: the church, the body of Christian believers…”

So as we go through this season, knowing not what is around the corner, we are not going it alone. There are others all around us; those who will be with us when we stumble and fall. No matter the season, we are siblings walking together, with the good company of one another. And being accompanied by Jesus. And it all begins again today, with his baptism.

Let’s enter into this season with joy and wonder as Jesus begins his ministry. Let us all be tourists who become pilgrims as He goes to Jerusalem. Amen.

                                                                                   Soli Deo Gloria

January 2, 2022 -- Second Sunday of Christmas
Rev. Jordan Miller-Stubbendick

Sunday, January 2, 2022
The Second Sunday of Christmas
Jeremiah 31:7-14, Psalm 147:12-20, Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1: [1-9]10-18
St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, West Seneca, NY

John 1:(1-9), 10-18
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of humans, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, "He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' ") From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.

The Gospel of the Lord

The Christmas story we hear this morning is an unexpected one. There are no angels or shepherds, no account of Mary and Joseph trying to find shelter where their child can be born. The gospel doesn't even really sound like a birth story at all, but it is. Instead of focusing on Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the beginning of John’s gospel tells of the birth of all that is. Jesus, the Word, existed from the beginning, and called everything into being. Jesus, the Word, is the light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness, which the darkness did not overcome.

The other three gospels focus more on the details of Jesus’ entrance into the world and his early ministry. John’s gospel takes a larger perspective, showing how Jesus fits into the origin and scope of the cosmos.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell the story in a way that fits our expectations of plot: beginning, middle, and end. They give us setting and context and characters. John’s gospel gives us poetry…the poetry of promise and possibility and eternal perspective.

Jesus is the very Word of God, who has always existed and who loved all things into being. He is the light who shines in the darkness of every place and time, who is full of glory. Jesus is grace upon grace, freely given to all.

It is difficult to fit all of this into a coherent storyline sometimes, and that is where the poetry comes in. John doesn't try to explain the mystery and grace of Jesus in a narrative account. He creates a picture of the scope and depth of Jesus’ goodness and love and grace, and invites us to dwell within it.

Sometimes the best we can do with the highest and holiest mysteries of life is to dwell with them. If we try to capture what love, forgiveness, grief, joy or contentment look or sound like, words often fail. Pictures don’t do the reality justice. There are simply experiences and realities of life that we need to sit with, sit in, and live through.

The mystery of Jesus’ birth and life as a human being is one of these things. We could try to parse it out and try to explain how it happened and what it means, exactly. And still, we would not be able to totally capture it.

At the risk of oversimplifying, it is a bit like baking cookies. How it is that simple ingredients like butter, flour, sugar, and eggs come together to create something so delicious? It’s possible to understand the effects of heat, chemical reactions and proper baking times, but that still doesn't fully explain it.

It is more experiential—and tasty—to enjoy a cookie warm from the oven. It lets you dwell in the mystery of how so many different ingredients combine to make a sweet treat.

The same can be true for the mystery of the Word made flesh. Instead of trying to explain or understand it, let it be. Sit with the wonder of God’s grace and love. God cherishes us, all people, and this world so much that God wanted to be born as a human being to show us that love.

This love is light that illuminates all that is. We don’t have to be able to explain it in words. It is enough to dwell with it, to soak it in, to let it bake and turn into something delicious…for our lives and the world. For “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…[it is] full of grace and truth.” That is enough. That is everything. Thanks be to God.

Amen