Witnessing God’s love in Community

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Matthew 18:15-20)  9/07/2014

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These last few days there has been a lot going on in the world, both near and far; the news media would say, “it surely hasn’t been a slow news day!” There has been continued unrest in the Middle East, with continuing reports of extremist activity; there has extreme weather, with tornadoes as close as Worcester; and of course, there is the busy time of packing up the summer vacation period and heading back to school. As you might imagine, even with all the activity going on, I cannot help but be preoccupied with the idea of community. Yes, that’s right, the change of communities and the community of St. Francis in particular. And as I have considered this topic, I have wondered…how is it that we are “community” in the Christian sense? Some characteristics of community are obvious, while some are not so obvious. The obvious ones might be easy to pick out: we gather in the same building for worship and meetings, we support the same ministries, and hopefully we are setting our future in the same direction. The “not so obvious” ones may be a bit harder to plainly see: we faithfully pray for each other, our lives are transformed by the presence of others, and our communal presence transforms our broader community and the world in grace filled ways. And some characteristics of community can be just plain hard to do, like forgiveness and open-hearted conversation. These last characteristics, these challenging characteristics are the ones on the mind of Jesus today in our Gospel lesson.

The author of Matthew’s Gospel account has Jesus explaining the characteristics of community throughout the whole of chapter 18. Today’s Gospel turns its attention to the practices of forgiveness and intentional presence. These practices, forgiveness and intentional presence, are important to Matthew’s story of Jesus’ ministry because there were changes going on in the community; a change from the following the laws of the Jewish tradition to the newly established customs of the Christian Church. The previous customs of the Jewish law guided members of the community with “black and white” do’s and don’ts of behavior; the new customs of the Christian community removed the laws and forced relationship to occur in new and strange ways. Being in relationship with others, intentional relationship, can be hard, can be confusing…and we will hear Peter struggle with this new way of being in next week’s Gospel lesson. The act of intentional relationship with others can sometimes demand our very best, can ask that we stretch in new and creative ways; but if we are open to the power and presence of intentional relationship, we can be truly transformed.

Jesus understood both the challenges and transformative power of intentional relationship within community. When challenges arise, we hear Jesus say, “go to your brother or sister discretely, go with love in your heart, try to work out your differences.” If your differences are not settled, then bring others in to the confidence of your discussion…this is about community after all! If differences cannot be resolved, then we must acknowledge difficult times when full relationship must wait for another day. But there is ALWAYS hope…this is what the redeeming love of Christ assures us of as Christians. The redemptive power of God’s love is without boundaries! As Christians, we are children of a God overflowing with love and forgiveness: this is the power of relationship, this is the power of community.

I am incredibly thankful to have been invited to join this community. I am incredibly thankful to the many people who worked so hard on the various transition committees, those who prayed for this community and those beyond this community during this time of transition, and those who upheld and sustained this community throughout these past many months. During my first visit to St. Francis I noticed many wonderful things present in this community, but the banners in the parish hall stood out as powerful symbols of the commitment and love of this community. As I sit in my office today, I can look out and clearly see the banner made in 2004: “I am a witness”…a powerful phrase! This particular banner was created with numerous hands – hands in different directions, hands made of different colors, hands hanging on different branches of a tree; a tree with one solid trunk, one solid base. That solid base is the community, the Body of Christ, the many made one through intentional relationship. Biblical scholar, Raymond Brown, in his commentary on our Gospel lesson today, noted: “Overall, the extent that churches listen to the Jesus who speaks to his disciples in [these verses] of Matthew, they will keep Jesus’ spirit alive instead of memorializing him. Then, Jesus’ words will be fulfilled: ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.'”[i] As we gather in community, in groups of two or three or many more, we are filled with courage and hope to know we gather in Christ’s name; we are filled with love to know God will help us to be in holy relationship with each other; we are blessed to know we have been called together to faithfully proclaim through our words and actions: I am a Witness!

AMEN.

[i] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 193.

Trinity Sunday: In relationship with a loving God

Trinity Sunday (Matthew 28:16-20)  6/15/2014

A little more than a week ago, many people throughout the world took a moment to pause and remember the 70th anniversary of a day we call D-Day. This day continues to hold great significance in our common history; significant because we may personally know people who were present on the beaches of Normandy that day, significant because of the sheer scale of the event and its importance in world history. In remembrance of this day, Brian Williams, NBC News Anchor, presented a special broadcast titled, “Journey to Normandy.” His news story highlighted the lives of four men, all near 90 years old, who were returning to the same beaches they encountered 70 years ago, at a time when they were just a few years removed from their high school days. As they traveled back to Normandy they remembered their first trip, an experience that was beyond words in many ways, and they shared their memories of that day and the many days that followed. As I listened to these brave men share their thoughts about their upcoming visit to that far away beach in France, I was quite moved by the men’s stories and the hopes they had set for their visit. One man hoped to finally discover the future of a wounded teenager he had seen those many years ago, another simply wanted to throw a flower into the water where a dear friend was lost forever, and another brought his family along so they would understand his story in a deep and personal way. Their hopes and dreams, after all these years, were rooted in relationships with others: some relationships were only momentary (like the wounded teenager), while others were life-long relationships of family and close friends. The hopes of these veterans reveal an important truth for all of us: the spiritual connections we share with God and with each other are nurtured by our relationships. These brave men’s stories, begun in the crucible of the frightening moments on a distant beach, continued and was transformed to something profound and valuable due to their intimate relationships with family, friends, and God. Each transformation was made manifest in their personal story, the story of the past 70 years since that first day on the Normandy beach. Continue reading

No worries, just be a Witness!

Seventh Sunday of Easter (Sunday after the Ascension) (Acts 1:6-14)  6/01/2014

“As they were watching, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?'” (Acts 1:9-11) These three short verses of Scripture from the Book of Acts are among my favorite verses in the Bible, for many reasons. Just prior to this description of the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, we are told of the many post-resurrection appearances of Jesus and the final lessons he hoped to give to his followers, teaching them how to spread the Good News of Christ. But now the time has come for Jesus to leave them, and leave them he does…and they are left standing by themselves, filled with awe and more than just a little worry in their hearts. Suddenly, two heavenly beings burst into this dramatic moment with a question: “Why are you standing there looking up to heaven?” I really love this question because it is so simple, yet so challenging at the same time. I feel some kinship with the disciples as they gaze to the heavens with their mouths hanging open, the universal sign of “my goodness, what’s next?” The Ascension of Christ marks the 40th day of Eastertide, and in those forty days Jesus continually prepared his disciples for the next chapter of their ministry in the world. And we have heard throughout these past weeks that the disciples often did not really understand Jesus’ lessons to them; again, I feel some kinship with these earliest followers of Christ! And now, Jesus has departed from their midst; their great rabbi, their teacher, has ascended and left them to carry on…a bit overwhelming! What should we think of this story; what can we say about our first class of Christians? Should we understand the Ascension as a graduation story or something else entirely? Continue reading

Hear my voice and follow me

Fourth Sunday of Easter (John 10:1-10)  5/11/2014

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“Can you hear me now?” These words might be familiar to you if you remember the Verizon Wireless ads from a few years ago, or maybe you’ve heard those words if you have called me on my mobile phone while I was inside the stone walls of the church! Sometimes we struggle to clearly hear the words of those around. This reality is among the lessons Jesus aims to teach us this morning in our Gospel lesson. “The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice…and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” (John 10:3-4) But, can you hear me now? The author of John’s Gospel account tells us, “No,” the disciples did not understand Jesus as he spoke this parable to them. I recently heard a wonderful story about a young girl who lives in northern New England; her parents raise Shetland Sheep for the beautiful wool of these animals. The young girl spends hours and hours among the sheep, she knows every sheep of the fold for their unique markings and color and their individual personality. And the sheep know her by voice, just as Jesus told in his story to his followers. The sheep know her because she is among them and cares for them in deep and personal ways. Continue reading

New birth and a living hope – transformed by Christ

Second Sunday of Easter (1 Peter 1:3-9)  4/27/2014

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Last week I mentioned the important meaning of this year’s Boston Marathon, especially in light of the tragic events of last year’s race. The Boston Marathon is significant in many ways for those who run the race. There is, first and foremost, hundreds of hours of training…an act of dedication on the part of the runner. Although I have never run a full marathon, I have spent a few months training with friends who have run marathons and I can attest to the commitment they put forth. After countless hours of training and preparation, the day of the big race finally arrives. This year’s Boston Marathon included more than 35 thousand runners (the second most in the race’s history) and was blessed with beautiful weather! Cheering fans lined the streets of the 26.2 mile course and provided excitement and support to all those who pass by. As the moments passed by and after the elite runners quickly ran past, the cheering fans remained to support the competitors who run because they love it; for many runners, the Boston Marathon is a very special moment in their lives. This year, there was a man from Massachusetts who was running in the race and he had nearly reached the 26 mile point, just a few hundred yards from the finish line…and he found that he had run out of energy, the muscles in his legs giving up on him. It is not uncommon to see runners taking a rest during the race, but with just a short distance remaining this man collapsed to his knees, unable to move. I can imagine his lonely agony, surrounded by thousands of people, yet feeling alone in the moment as he slumped to his knees unable to move. Runners continued to pass by, focused on that line just ahead, but there was one man from Illinois who did something surprisingly different – he stopped and supported the slumping man by lifting him under his arm. And then another man from Texas stopped to support the other arm. As the three runners moved slowly forward, unable to sustain their forward movement, two additional runners stopped as well, a man from Minnesota and a woman from Seattle. The group moved toward the finish line, a weary man supported by four exhausted runners: time didn’t matter, the rules of the race that prohibited assisting others didn’t matter, nothing mattered except helping each other, and in helping each other, everyone was dramatically transformed.[i] Continue reading

Maundy Thursday: care & compassion for others

Maundy Thursday (John 13:1-17; 31-35)  4/17/2014

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Earlier this week many people took time to remember an event that took place one year ago; a tragic event that ripped through the streets of Boston and ripped through the lives of many, many people. We wish we need not remember days like these, but there is some powerful truth about our common life together that is unlocked and exposed for all to see as we experience events that are beyond our control. The bombing at last year’s Boston Marathon was a day that held this truth for us. The marathon in Boston is not just another sporting event, not just a special day for people who like to run distances that immediately make the rest of us wonder where we left our car keys. No, the marathon is a special part of Boston’s character and spirit; run on a celebratory day that remembers the town’s unique place in the struggle that led to the birth of our nation. The bombs did not simply create the tragic deaths of three people and the injuries of hundreds more, but they shattered the peaceful patterns of people’s understanding of a day that had been celebrated for generations. In the immediate aftermath of the bombs’ destructive force, both people and the community’s sense of peace lie in agony. And if that were the end of the story, it would certainly be a story we would hope to soon forget, but that moment was only the beginning of the larger story that continues to this day and beyond. The larger story is the story of the powerful truth about our common life together, and this is the story we must not forget, this is the story we must remember as we gather together in later days. As the Governor of Massachusetts said to those gathered in Boston this past Tuesday, “There are no strangers here. We are all connected to each other, to events beyond our control, to a common destiny.”[i] The powerful truth of that common destiny is that we are called to serve each other, in times filled with joy and in times filled with sorrow.

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The Great Silence of Holy Week

Palm Sunday (Matthew 27:11-54)  04/13/2014

As we come into the presence of God, whether alone or in a group as we do this morning, there are many varieties of worship and prayer: sacred music, the reading of Scripture, intercessory prayer, or meditation to name just a few. A month ago I spent a few days at the Holy Cross Monastery and joined the brothers of that Order in their time of silence in the presence of God. Extended periods of silence are sometimes hard to find these days, and there are certainly those for whom this is good news…I will admit, silence is not for everyone, and fortunately we have many varieties of worship and prayer. But silence holds a particular power and silence is something we experience this morning as we listen to the dramatic story of the Passion of Jesus Christ. Continue reading